If you want to avoid thinking about how you live in a society which persistently condones the murder of poor young black men by its official or self-appointed police agents, there are a couple of film-geeky things to focus on in Fruitvale Station: The cell phone deserves a co-star credit. We almost never see Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) without his, and a helpful cell phone cam often pops up in the bottom right corner of the screen to let us know what he’s doing with it. He calls his mom when he’s in bed with his girlfriend, texts his friends when he’s at his mom’s New Year’s Eve birthday party, calls his grandmother from the supermarket to help out a befuddled white girl who’s trying to look up a recipe for “fish-fry” with her smart phone. We later see the same white girl using it to film the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police brutalize and shoot Oscar, but—shit—that takes us back to something we don’t want to think about. Better to comment on how all this self-mediation creates a challenge for any contemporary filmmaker, not to mention actor, trying to convey a sense of everyday, peaceable life. All we do is stand around using our phones.
“He hated to be alone,” Oscar’s mom (Octavia Spencer) says, when she views his corpse in the hospital but is forbidden to touch him because he’s now become “evidence” in his own murder, but that takes us back to what we don’t otherwise want to think about. We also see Oscar, in his last minutes, open and close his phone repeatedly, trying to film the police, trying to call his girlfriend, just holding on to the object, but we don’t want to think about what happens next. We’re just glad that director Ryan Coogler had the sense not to use a cell phone cam. The film also opens with footage of the shooting of the real-life Oscar Grant, taken on smart phone video, and without which we probably wouldn’t have this movie to prompt us to avoid strenuously thinking about how we live in a society that locks up nearly 33 percent of its black men for one reason or another and tolerates a high number of accidental or tragic shootings of other black men by the police. To be poor and black in America is already to be treated as someone engaged in suspicious, criminal behavior, which is how it happens that Oscar Grant could find himself sucker-punched in a crowded train, and then manhandled by police who of course think he and his friends are the culprits.
But the light, the light in this otherwise matter-of-factly shot film is very good. The camera mostly looks at the light source, whether the too-bright single bedside lamp in the first scene at Oscar’s girlfriend’s apartment, or the winter, late-afternoon sun in the yard of the daycare center when Oscar goes to pick up his daughter (he races her outside shouting “I can’t lose,” when we know he can’t win); or the eerie yellow globes of the above-ground BART station as the train pulls out on Oscar’s final trip. The outdoor light isn’t particularly warm, although we’re in San Francisco, it’s light that you have to squint into, painful, always slightly wrong.
If you want more distraction, you can fantasize that Jordan, who played Wallace from the first season of The Wire, is still Wallace, that Wallace wasn’t really shot by his two friends as part of their initiation into the higher ranks of the Barksdale Gang but instead escaped to California, where he was eventually shot by a police officer who claimed, in court, that he’d mistaken his gun for his taser and got off with a two-year suspended manslaughter sentence. In other words, in the garden of forking paths of black urban life, too many roads lead to the bullet. There’s really no escape from the realization that it worse-than-sucks to be a young, poor, black man in today’s America. This has been true now for so long that it seems almost easy to forget. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing came out almost twenty-five years ago; James Baldwin’s “A Report from Occupied Territory” in 1966, although these words and the gap they describe are no less true now: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.”
Fruitvale, however, is not really a political film in an agit-prop sense. It muffles its outrage always in favor of starkness. It has none of Spike Lee’s Brechtian exuberance and addresses to the audience. When Oscar’s friends pour into the hospital, we understand that they’re enraged, but we never get to see their rage. They’re effectively rallied into a prayer group by Oscar’s mom. Like the people on screen, the audience is just supposed to sit there and take it. Coogler’s close-quarter shots of low-ceilinged Oakland bungalows and apartments, and the usual awful hospital waiting room, convey stifled lives without any of the characters needing to speak about it. Fruitvale simply places you inside Oscar’s life and his family’s for the last day of it. One of its most original and psychologically insightful scenes is almost ruined by the film’s reliance on dramatic irony and foreshadowing. Oscar is putting his daughter Tatiana to bed at his sister-in-law’s, before he goes out for what we know will be a fatal night on the town. Tatiana, a winning four-year-old or five-year-old, beautifully played by Ariana Neal, understandably does not want her father to go away; from what we’ve already seen of her—in the movie’s first minutes she talks her way into bed with her parents when we know they’d rather be doing something else—we know that she’s bent her whole considerable toddler intelligence toward keeping her father around and in her sight as much as possible, and who could blame her? “Daddy, I’m scared of guns,” she tells him, a line that’s been properly set up by a shot of her watching men shoot firecrackers out of starter pistols by the roadside, out of the car window. Of course, Oscar’s role as he tries to be the good father, is to tell her that these are just firecrackers, toy guns, and that nothing bad will happen to him if he goes out for a few hours with Tatiana’s mom and his friends, that he’ll see her in the morning.
This scene occurs in a thousand variations between parents and children everywhere. It’s a necessary rite of passage of childhood, learning to trust your parents, to confirm through experience that the world is not an evil fairy tale forest where bad things happen when you let loved ones out of your sight and out of your control. Children are controlling and testing the reach of their power over adults as much as adults over children. They become more so when they sense the family is fragile, and many of them are very good at it. For the scene to work, however, the viewer has to ignore Tatiana’s role as a sentimental agent of foreshadowing, and understand that both father and daughter are playing out an ordinary ritual whose meaning will become, because of future events, perpetually broken. They have been placed in an impossible situation. For the rest of her life, Tatiana will believe, on some level, that she failed to protect her father and save her family by letting herself be assured by his promise to return. She will be haunted by both a sense of failure and distrust of men that’s completely unjustified and unjust and yet will feel all too real to her. And Oscar’s last moments are poisoned by the understanding that his daughter will feel abandoned by him, simply because he believed he was a free man when he was already treated as a criminal in the eyes of the society we continue to make our peace with, every day.