David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN March 27, 2018
“Fruitvale Station,” a film released in 2013, tells the story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American man killed by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer early New Year’s Day 2009.
Oscar was unarmed, lying facedown and handcuffed. The film captures his last 24 hours of life, interacting with his daughter, his mother, his girlfriend. I saw it twice last week on Netflix. It left me overwhelmed and angry but admiring the director, Ryan Coogler, who is now, and will likely forever be, better known for directing the blockbuster “Black Panther.” Michael B. Jordan is the main character in both films.
I do not know anyone like the mythical heroes in “Black Panther,” but I have come to know several guys like Oscar Grant. I drove one of them, I will call him Oscar II, to court last week so he could make payment on his restitution obligation for a crime he plead guilty to a couple years ago.
Oscar II is a big guy with a full bucket of everyday concerns—his health, keeping his job, keeping his housing. I met him a couple years ago and learned a lot about him, his daily challenges, and the confusing complexities of the so-called criminal justice system.
Oscar II is older than Oscar Grant, and he has a son who is now about Oscar’s age. He attended Columbia Public Schools, but I’m pretty sure he never graduated from high school. Oscar II has pointed out the many streets in Columbia, and several houses in surrounding counties, where he has lived.
He is a gregarious guy who knows lots of people. Oscar II is now middle-aged and may have been in a good deal of trouble in his youth. I have learned about his children, for whom he is still paying child support, and about the three low-wage part-time jobs he is now juggling. I know of several previous brushes with the law, including a DWI, that have left him rather isolated because he “wants to avoid trouble.”
Spending a few hours with Oscar II gives an opportunity to talk about basketball, why weather forecast doesn’t seem to be right very often, and the aches and pains that come with age. Oscar II says he is lucky because he has a reliable place to stay. He doesn’t plan very well. Many of his challenges are due to decisions he made, or didn’t make, in previous months and years.
Oscar II is a resilient, pleasant guy, with a sense of humor. He gets stressed out worrying he will be late for his hearing and never complains when he must wait an hour while the judge allows the defendants with lawyers who, he knows, will go before him.
“Fruitvale Station” is gripping because it is so realistic. Oscar Grant is not an angry black man, nor is he a thug. He is imperfect in many ways, yet he seemed to be trying to straighten himself out. He remembered his mother’s birthday, was figuring out how to get out of the drug trade and wanting to get his job back.
The criminal justice system has not served either man well. Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station was pulled off the Bay Area transit station because of a ruckus where he was defending himself. Neither he nor his buddies were armed. The police were not in jeopardy until they placed themselves in jeopardy. The officer who shot and killed Oscar was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent time in prison.
Oscar II has been caught in a criminal justice maze that may make sense to lawyers and judges but not to the uninitiated. Oscar II was in danger of having his probation revoked because he erroneously thought court costs had been part of the restitution payment schedule. Either his public defender had not noticed, or the judge talked too fast for Oscar II, or me, to fully understand.
“Fruitvale Station” illustrates Oscar’s mother’s love and concern for him, her guilt over encouraging him to take the Bart train on New Year’s Eve so he would not be tempted to drink and drive. Fruitvale Station shows Oscar’s striving to do better with his baby’s mama and his daughter.
“Fruitvale Station” is an engaging film, even if Oscar had not been just another of the police shootings of unarmed black men across our country. “Black Panther” is a huge success, but “Fruitvale Station” shows the humanity, the normality, of a young black man.
There are lots of Oscars in Columbia and America. We need to see more films like “Fruitvale Station,” despite how unpleasant stories they tell.