Fruitvale Station: love, matriarchs and murdered black men

In 2009, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black man out celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends, was shot in the back by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer while laying faced down on the pavement. “Fruitvale Station,” an independent film directed by 27-year-old Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan that tells that tragic story in breathtaking ways, is now out in theaters nationwide.

The film, which has been widely praised for humanizing Grant, powerfully depicts him through a lens rarely seen in mainstream media – through everyday relationships with family members and friends. “Fruitvale Station” shows that Grant was a complex human being who was undoubtedly loved and loving. It’s just that simple, but, yet, so very important.

It’s in this simplicity that “Fruitvale Station” has the capacity to redeem much of the damage that keeps being done to public perceptions about black men. While the film is honest in its depiction of Grant’s criminal background and struggles with anger, it still manages to push back on the media, courtroom and public demonization of slain black males. It offers a multi-dimensional human depiction rarely – if ever – seen.

“By the time the credits roll, Oscar Grant has become one of the rarest artifacts in American culture: a three-dimensional portrait of a young black male – a human being,” says Jesse Washington in a powerful AP essay entitled “Black Male Humanity Shown in ‘Fruitvale.” He continues, “Which raises the question: If Grant was a real person, what about all these other young black males rendered as cardboard cutouts by our merciless culture? What other humanity are we missing?”

When looking at the attire and demeanor of Grant and his friends from afar, they fit the profile of weed-smoking, belligerent thugs. But “Fruitvale Station” offers an intimate look into their world. It’s a window into the life, thinking and emotions of a young black man growing up in a working class community of color. The setting is unique to Oakland California, but the story is all too common.

Beyond Grant’s machismo and tough exterior rests a scared, gentle soul. His commitment to providing for the women in his life is at the heart of the difficult decisions he has to make about right versus wrong. While selfish and irresponsible at times, Grant is also a deeply vulnerable and compassionate figure. We see this particularly in his interactions with his young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) who brings out his childlike, playful side.

We also see this vulnerability play out in his dealings with the matriarchs in his family – from his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) to his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) to his Grandma Bonnie (Marjorie Shears). These women are his anchors in life. Sophina keeps him honest, holds him accountable and brings out his sensual side. Through their relationship, we see his desire to be a protector and provider. His mother Wanda grounds him in prayer and nurtures him through wise words and good food. Her “tough love” approach often haunts him in his actions and decision-making. Then, there’s Grandma Bonnie who keeps him connected to tradition and the family history that proceeds him. Older men are present in Grant’s life but they are mere shadows in comparison to the matriarchs.

While Grant is a product of his environment, as we all are, he is also the culmination of all these relationships that inform him as a human being, as we all are.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ending of “Fruitvale Station” tends to draw tears, pain and anger from viewers. While we all know how the story ends, the film’s masterful telling of Oscar’s story leaves us hoping that the officer who killed him would see everything we see in him. The film also unintentionally picks at wounds still raw and in need of healing from the “not guilty” verdict in the Zimmerman trial.

It does all of that in a way that cannot easily be shaken off. It does it in a way that will hopefully make us say “no more” and “never again.” No more shedding of innocent blood. Never again will we allow a person’s humanity to be so savagely stripped away from them on our watch. No more. Never again. For Oscar Grant. For Trayvon Martin. For Aiyana Jones. For them all.

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Tom Jackman · July 29, 2013