A man stands next to a photo of Oscar Grant during a protest against Grant’s killing in Oakland, California, June 12, 2011.
Ryan Coogler’s film ‘Fruitvale Station’ strips the polemics from the news story of Oscar Grant, a man shot to death by police while handcuffed, and presents the victim’s 22-year struggle warts and all.
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, 22-year-old Oakland resident Oscar Grant was handcuffed and shot in the back at point blank range on a subway platform by Bay Area Transit Police officer Johannes Mehserle.
Shocked onlookers captured the entire incident on video. Oscar Grant, who is African-American, succumbed to his injuries the next day at a local hospital, and the video of his killing went viral. The images of the cuffed young man being shot set off a wake of protests and riots in Oakland—and drew a degree of national attention to the issue of police brutality that hadn’t been as intense since the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers in 1992.
In the days and weeks that followed, Grant’s story devolved into a shouting match in the national media. To some he became a saint who died standing up against police mistreatment. To others, the victim was a scourge whose previous crimes (Oscar Grant served multiple prison stints) somehow justified his killing.
The reality of Oscar Grant’s life and the tragic shooting that ended it is far more complicated than either polarized view—and is the subject of a new feature film, Fruitvale Station, by rookie director Ryan Coogler. The winner of both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and opening in select theaters July 12, Fruitvale Station strips Grant’s story of its polemics and focuses on the man himself.
“I wanted to take all the politics out of this film,” Coogler recently told an audience gathered to see a screening of Fruitvale Station at the University of Southern California. “He was 22 when he was shot. I was 22. His friends could have been my friends. That could have been me.”
In 2009, Coogler was a USC film-school student spending his winter break back in Oakland. Oscar Grant’s shooting, he says, was a “gut punch” for both him and his community. Coogler immediately knew he wanted to tackle the issue in some capacity. Through a friend, he was able to land a job with the lawyers in Grant’s civil trial. He worked as an archivist for the cell phone footage taken the night police shot Grant.
Coogler’s access to the specific details of Grant’s case allowed him to piece together the moment-to-moment details of Grant’s last day on Earth—and fleshed out his feelings for Grant as a human being, beyond the black-and-white sketches he’d seen in the media.
After penning an initial script for Fruitvale Station, Coogler, through the lawyers he worked for, convinced Oscar Grant’s family to participate in the film. They provided the filmmaker with achingly intimate memories of Grant, including some they might have choosen to forget if they could.
The result, instead of a hagiography, or a trumped up ode to a soldier martyred in the struggle for social justice, is that Coogler’s film plays like a meditation on the consequences of anger.
Despite a well-intentioned attempt to reboot his life in the wake of a prison sentence, Oscar Grant on the screen in Fruitvale Station is an angry man. His short trigger alienates him from his family, compromises his job prospects and, ultimately, paves the way for the incident that left him dead at the hands of police.
No, he did not deserve the fate he was dealt on that subway platform, but when you put as much anger into the world as Grant did, Coogler seems to be saying, it shouldn’t be suprising when something comes back.
The man who most of us have seen bleeding on a subway platform on YouTube is human. He is neither a martyr, nor a scourge, and he was far from being an aberration.
Oscar Grant was not alone in his anger, and his anger did not emanate from a vacuum. The world has no shortage of young people whose furious dissatisfaction is fueled by and based upon the circumstances they have been born into.
The fact that American audiences cannot help but identify with Oscar Grant is the deep reality that gives this movie its award-winning power, a “gut punch” that is felt long after the screening has finished.
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