Oscar Grant did not deserve to die.
This is the central message of “Fruitvale Station,” a film dramatizing the real-life case of the young unarmed black man shot in the back by a white police officer in 2009. It’s a common message, often heard in film and life in general. But the way writer/director Ryan Coogler delivers this message is extraordinary.
As portrayed by Michael B. Jordan (beware of plot spoilers ahead) Grant is a great father — and a convicted felon. He loves his girlfriend — and he cheats on her. He wants to hold down a legal job — and he can’t make it to work on time. He’s a drug dealer who takes time to make his bed in the morning, a hardened convict and a mama’s boy — a thuggish angel.
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.
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?
“Everyone either made Oscar out to be a saint, depending on whatever their political agenda was, and on the other side they made him out to be this villain,” Coogler said in an interview.
“Everything he had ever done wrong in his life was magnified,” Coogler said. “He was just a criminal, a thug, a drug dealer, and he deserved what he got. You live that type of lifestyle, you get what you deserve. His humanity was lost.”
Grant was 22 years old in the early hours of New Year’s Day, returning home to Oakland with his girl and other friends. In the film, a fight starts on the train when Grant encounters an enemy from prison. Police detained Grant and his friends on the platform of the Fruitvale station.
The police are abusive; Grant and friends respond with belligerence. Grant is being held face down on the platform, unarmed and struggling, when the officer shoots him once in the back. Numerous bystanders captured the scene on video.
That’s the first scene of the film, using real video shot by bystanders. Then it jumps backwards one day to fill in the blanks of an average brother, to illustrate the mundane moments with family, friends and strangers that constitute real life.
When Grant’s death hit the news, what much of the public saw was a convicted drug dealer who had been released from prison three months before his death. They saw a troublemaker who police said was resisting arrest. They didn’t see everything else that’s in “Fruitvale Station.”
“If there’s one thing missing in our country, it’s an acknowledgment of the broad humanity of black folks,” Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote on his blog at TheAtlantic.com. “Racism — and anti-black racism in particular — is the belief that there’s something wrong with black people.”
The remedy: “Close the gap between what they see and who we really are,” Coates wrote.
Asked what it felt like to close that gap, the actor Jordan said, “It felt real. It felt like I was telling a story for young African-American males who are stereotyped and judged before people get a chance to know them.”
“We wanted to let people know who this guy was through the people who knew him the best,” Jordan said. “Show the good, bad and the ugly. Flaws and all.”
“Fruitvale Station” is not unprecedented. It’s part of a recent wave of independent black films that are putting authentic black characters on more screens than ever.
This can make a difference in how black men are perceived in the real world, said black filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
“A more complex, truer, authentic, comprehensive, non-caricature view of any person, of any kind of person, helps us all to understand each other a little bit more,” DuVernay said. “When you’re only getting one dimension, unfortunately it does do its work, and that is mostly negative.”
We have seen the complex depths of black manhood before, from actors such as Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, or television’s “The Wire,” or Kanye West’s music catalog. Even major studios are presenting substantial black male roles this year with “12 Years a Slave” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” (Although the roles are still, well, a slave and a butler.)
Perhaps it’s serendipity, then, that gives “Fruitvale Station” so much power: The film started trickling into theaters as the verdict was delivered in the Trayvon Martin case.
The parallels are inescapable: two young black men shot dead, both unarmed, both with checkered pasts, both accused of being responsible for their own deaths.
“Often times people can deal with certain things happening to people when they don’t see them as full human beings,” Coogler said. “They’re not real to you, you don’t know them. What makes somebody a real person is those gray areas.”
What were Trayvon Martin’s gray areas? All many see is black and white.
“With ‘Fruitvale’ opening the weekend this verdict came down, it’s one of these zeitgeist moments that can’t be planned and can never be predicted,” said DuVernay.
“In those moments, the power of film is so abundantly clear,” she said. “These two lives, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, really intersected in tragic and beautiful ways. One was made into a film that helps folks process and understand the tragedy of another.”
The tragedy that Trayvon Martin did not deserve to die.