This is the true story of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was fatally shot at point blank range on New Year’s Day 2009. The incident, filmed by onlookers on their phones, sparked protests and demonstrations, but the police officer in question only served an 11 month sentence.
With every news story like this; with every Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin; a debate is sparked around the underlying racism in American society. While this might not be an overt, open racism of the kind that was common in the 1950s and 60s, the lenient sentences enjoyed by the perpetrators of these crimes suggest racial prejudice lurks beneath the surface; a general sense that a young black man shot by a white police officer must have been up to no good.
Behind the protests, trials and anger it can be hard to get a sense of the victim. A photo and some bluntly stated facts on the news don’t create a sense of a person, and the knowledge that Grant had served time in prison on several occasions, and recently lost his job, is the kind of thing that, while irrelevant to whether he should have been killed in this way, may influence opinion and add to the sense that he was probably doing something wrong. What Fruitvale Station does it show us Oscar himself, on the day leading up to his murder, to give the incident a much-needed human connection.
The focus here isn’t on what he did wrong, but what he did right. It touches on his time in prison and shows him screwing up with an affair, and getting fired from work, but overall we get an impression of a reformed character. This may be too much for some, who may feel it sacrifices realism for a narrative redemption. Given how good or bad he was is irrelevant to whether or not he should have been shot while unarmed, making this film about his improving character could be seen to be missing the point.
Yet it could also be argued that having a film which takes a positive view of Grant, and tries to look for positives, in spite of very real flaws, is a way of counteracting the evident bias in society. The fixation on the negative may have played a part in the outrageous leniency on his killer, and perhaps to show the other side of the story is a fitting tribute. Where Devil’s Knot used a real life tragedy, it focused on the same stuff the media (and documentaries) had done, and was boring. Its lengthy fixation on the investigation and trial left us wanting characters we could connect to. Fruitvale Station is the opposite, spending most of its time in the build-up to the incident. It looks at the person behind the tragedy and is, as a result, far more compelling and emotionally engaging.