It is kinda chilling watching this feature film debut by young writer/director Ryan Coogler in light of recent events in the States.
The film traces the last day and night in the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22 year old African-American fatally shot in the back by a Caucasian policeman who later claimed he was reaching for his taser rather than his gun.
The film opens with real life (cell phone camera) footage of the actual incident which took place on New Year’s Day 2009 in San Francisco in the subway station which gives the film its title.
Mr. Coogler grew up in San Francisco Bay and was attending the University of Southern California at the time of Mr. Grant’s death. In a Washington Post interview the 27 year old film-maker says that objectivity was an issue in the Bay area following the shooting. “Oscar was either seen as a saint, or he was seen as a monster, who got what he deserved that night, depending on which side of the fence people stood on. I felt that in that process, Oscar’s truth was lost.”
But how true to life is the characterization of Mr. Grant, depicted in the film as the loving father of a 4 year old girl, a dutiful son and grandson, a repentant fiance (his girlfriend, played by the delectable Melonie Diaz, has caught him cheating on her with another woman) and portrayed by a charismatic Michael B. Jordan (TV’s The Wire)
Was Mr. Coogler too close to his subject matter while making the film? Was I being manipulated while watching it?
Kyle Smith may think so. In a New York Post article entitled “Fruitvale Station tells some, omits some” Mr. Smith ticks off some of the less flattering aspects of Mr. Grant’s life shown in the film (he was a former drug dealer and ex-convict, he was fired from his job at a grocery store for repeatedly showing up late) and, in passing, notes that Mr. Grant’s sentence was for gun possession (in the film he is shown in prison but it is never clear why he is there) then goes on to write: “So why would even the stupidest or most brutal cop in the world shoot an unarmed man in front of a huge crowd? Because Grant wouldn’t show his hands and the cop thought he might be reaching for a weapon. So the officer reached for his Taser, or so he believed, and stepped away to give the stun gun room to function. One of Grant’s friends said he heard the officer say, “I’m going to tase him” before firing (another inconvenient fact left out of the film).
Oscar’s grandmother, Bonnie Johnson. interviewed on the fifth anniversary of Oscar’s death Jan. 2014 by colorlines.com admits that Mr. Grant “wasn’t an angel all his life but it never got back to me … When I think about Oscar I look at the things he have done for me. He put the baseboards around the cabinet along the kitchen walls … he’d be nailing away and doing whatever and he would take the time. He was never too busy. If he had something he really needed to do he’d say, ‘I’ll come back’, and he’d always come back.”
No matter what the truth may be, the film makes you realize that due to an alleged error in judgement a fatal shot was fired and a little girl lost her father.
Incidentally, the end credits mention that although the white officer responsible for Mr. Grant’s death was originally charged with homicide the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter. (The officer ended up serving eleven months.)