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A Death in Oakland

by Ross Douthat

A review of Fruitvale Station

Early on New Year’s Day, 2009, a fight broke out on the BART train running from San Francisco to Oakland. The transit cops arrived, pulled a group of men — young black men — from the train, and detained them on an East Bay platform. What happened next was captured by cell-phone videos taken by passengers on the train: After a lot of struggling and shouting, the officers pushed one of the young men down on his stomach to cuff him, there was some resistance and a scuffle, and then a cop pulled out his weapon and fired point-blank into the detainee’s back, mortally wounding him.

The gunshot victim was Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Oakland-area native, and his case became a cause célèbre in the Bay Area, inspiring marches, protests, riots, and then another round of the same after the shooting officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter a year and a half later. Now it has supplied the plot for a movie, Fruitvale Station, whose release has coincided with another racially charged, protest-inspiring tragedy, the Trayvon Martin shooting and George Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal.

That timing has been good for the film’s profile, but it’s also placed perhaps more weight — cultural and political — on the movie than it should be asked to bear. Many critics have overpraised what is, in the end, a novice effort (the director, Ryan Coogler, was a USC film student when the shooting happened): raw and passionate and sometimes powerful, but hardly revelatory in its performances, writing, or direction. At the same time, the movie has taken perhaps more fire than it deserves for its compressions and inventions, and been dismissed too quickly by its detractors as agitprop.

There is an agitprop moment in Fruitvale Station, at the credits, when viewers are urged to seek “justice for Oscar” — presumably a reference to the possibility of a second trial, under federal civil-rights law, for the officer who pulled the trigger. But the rest of the film doesn’t play as a simplistic call to arms, hewing close enough to the facts of Grant’s life and its final hour to avoid the lure of propaganda.

The movie covers a single day, Grant’s last, from dawn to his post-midnight rendezvous with tragedy. As played by Michael B. Jordan, a familiar face to viewers of The Wire and Friday Night Lights, Grant comes across as an intensely well-meaning and likeable young man: We watch him make nice with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz); drop their daughter off at kindergarten; pick up a birthday dinner for his mother (the reliably affecting Octavia Spencer); and bounce from one friendly encounter (everyone is greeted as “brah”) to another under the warm Oakland sun. The film uses his cell-phone contact list, which pops up on screen whenever he texts or dials, to build a sense of the friendly network that surrounded him.

But even as it plays up his decency and charisma, the movie acknowledges other realities: He’s making nice with Sophina because he recently cheated on her, he’s floating freely around the city because he just lost his grocery-store job for chronic lateness, his network of brahs includes people to whom he’s a pot dealer as well as a pal, and he’s trying to be hyper-involved with his daughter to make up for the chunk of her childhood he missed while behind bars.

Where Fruitvale Station does stack the deck in Oscar’s favor is in a few invented sequences, some meant to highlight his decency (he helps a white girl figure out her New Year’s fish fry, and comforts a dying pit bull — the movie’s most heavy-handed scene — after it’s been struck by a car) and others meant to suggest that this New Year’s could have been a turning point for him: We watch him dump a bag full of marijuana rather than sell it, talk about marrying Sophina instead of just stringing her along, and, in a chance encounter just before his death, even luck into a hook-up for a job.

But if some of this deck-stacking feels labored and unconvincing, the treatment of the shooting itself is much more grounded and plausible. The fight on the train that summons the cops isn’t a random incident; it’s linked directly to Grant’s time in prison, and the temper that he’s flashed at various moments throughout the film. The cops come across as bullying aggressors, particularly Kevin Durand’s first-responding Officer Caruso, but they’re also clearly caught up in a chaotic, dangerous moment, rather than trying to turn their power to some sort of vicious, predetermined end. And the way Coogler films the gunshot itself — its suddenness, its randomness even, amid the chaotic context — and the cop’s panicked reaction afterward tends, if anything, to buttress the defense’s case that the officer meant to tase Grant rather than put a bullet in him.

This means that for viewers who put aside their preconceptions and don’t push too hard to fit its story into an ideological frame, Fruitvale Station actually does justice to some of the complexities of the larger race-and-violence debate. On one hand, its honesty about the bad choices (sometimes childish, sometimes criminal) that defined Oscar Grant’s life, and the essentially accidental nature of his death, tends to undercut the Al Sharpton–esque idea that young black men in America are all just hapless victims of a vast racist conspiracy.

But at the same time, the warmth and sympathy of its portrait is an important reminder — for conservatives, especially — of why cases like this one, and the Trayvon Martin tragedy, provoke so much anguish in black America: because there really are obstacles that young black men face, cycles they’re too easily trapped in, and dangers they contend with that can make the American Dream’s fullness seem like something permanently outside their reach.

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