When a young black man dies in bowls of Brownsville Brooklyn or the eastern depths of the Bay Area, Jim Crow still pervades over him. Unless an electronic device captures the way he died, his dead body is investigated to the extent of a dog’s carcass on the road.
While pumping gas Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) comes across a pit bull, an intimidating creature for many, and starts to pet it. The dog runs out into the road and is hit by a car. Oscar yells for the car to pull over as he picks up the bleeding dog, the car continues to speed. While comforting the dog Oscar screams for help, but no one comes. He is left alone with the pit bull in his arms as it passes. This moment and other scenes in the film, although fabricated to add intricacies to the plot, attempt to show the many layers of a man.
Although Ryan Coogler (who wrote and directed Fruitvale Station just out of film school) does make statements in the film, we mainly see a day in the life of a young man who is struggling. His flaws are present, the film opens with Oscar hiding a bag of weed from his daughter and we become informed that he recently cheated on his girlfriend. Oscar is impulsive; he grabs the arm of his boss in an attempt to get his job back and gets into a fight while his mother visits him in prison during a flashback scene. This impulsivity also makes its way to the final scenes in the film.
What makes Fruitvale work is Cooglers style, besides the statements before the final credits and a few uncertain scenes (did Oscar really want to change his life around and stop selling weed?) Coogler is not force feeding his audience or telling them how they should feel about the death of another black man. Jordan also does a tremendous job capturing Oscar’s noted charisma, he is charming and able to talk himself out of certain situations, but sometimes talk is just talk and with incarceration in his past Oscar struggles trying to live a stable life. At 22 Oscar has a daughter and a distrustful girlfriend, a circumstance few would be ready for at that age. Like many of us he is trying to get by the best way he knows how.
Circumstances that were captured on countless cellphones occur after Oscar and his girlfriend spend New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. The initial brutality of the officer’s actions is more chilling than the final fatal act itself. A young police officer (Chad Michael Murray) is perhaps the most docile of the officers, but he grabs his gun instead of his Taser. The end does not surprise us, but how it all went down does. Oscar’s death could have been avoided during countless moments on the BART platform. The choice to detain the young men and use physical force seemed completely unnecessary, more vicious power play than public safety.
Cooglar could have made this film in several ways, with a gritty soundtrack and hip-hop beats crafted in a stereotypical manner (a blacks v. whites type of world) but he didn’t. Birds of different feather flock together during warm exchanges at the supermarket and on the BART, the act of brutality is a decision and should never be deluded down to race alone. The murky gray area of police brutality is never significantly explored in the film, but it’s clear that somewhere down the line the choice to treat people like beasts seems easier and less time consuming than the alternative.
Cooglar did not necessarily make this film in an effort to retrace factual events, and the questions are left for the audience to explore. When another young black man dies should it and does it mean anything? The protests have happened, news stations and social media have covered it, but this will happen again, again and again until collectively society digs beyond the stingy solid ground. Nobody really has the answers but respect and dignity are a start. The way we communicate, particularly the way law enforcement treats those it should protect needs to change—sometimes things are so basic they are beyond our comprehension; it all goes back to Thumpers mother.