Fruitvale Station (2013)

Director: Ryan Coogler

fvstation2Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the murder of Oscar Grant. While it doesn’t contain any explicit political overtones, its existence is politically significant. Usually dramatizations of people’s lives are reserved for artists, world “leaders” and the like rather than victims of police brutality. Yet this film is an attempt to put a human face on a prominent recent victim of such an incident.

For those who are not familiar with the case, Oscar Grant was murdered by police in Oakland, California in 2009. The subsequent trial of the officer who shot Grant resulted in a mere 2 year sentence, and only 11 months were served. These events led to riots and an intensification of the anti-police brutality movement in California and this film can, in a sense, be seen as part of that movement.

The film closely details the last day in Grant’s life, from his struggle to stop selling marijuana to his attempts of getting his job at a supermarket back, to the emotional (and adorable) interactions with his daughter. These sequences did not in themselves contain much politically significant content, but rather need to be situated as the “humanizing” of a victim of the state. Usually when the police kill someone, the media and entertainment industries either don’t pay attention or assume that it was the victim’s fault. This film turns that narrative on its head (and was able to because of the blatantly obvious case of wrong doing on the police’s behalf for this particular incident).

fvstation3Some reviews of the film so far have focused on this humanizing effort that the film engages in to criticize it. The AV club says that “[p]utting a human face on a public tragedy that already had a human face, Fruitvale Station plays like an uncomplicated eulogy, with little more to say on its subject than ‘what a shame this bad thing happened.'” Variety says that the film is guilty of promoting a “relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject.” While I would usually agree that over humanizing of politically significant events like the death of Oscar Grant cheapen and oversimplify these issues (which discourages political responses in favor of “case by case” dealings), I would say that the very nature of this film makes it a rare exception.

What sets this humanizing effort apart from other stories set in the United States can be made clear from the questions raised by AP writer Jesse Washington: “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?”

The very project of humanizing the subject of a police murder is an attempt to bring light to not only his case, but effectively brings light to the issue of police violence in general. On top of the social and cultural role the film plays, it is also well done and should be watched on that merit alone.