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The Beautiful Truth of ‘Fruitvale Station’

CONNECTING CALIFORNIA - In this state, our fictions are often better teachers than the truth.


The most significant California film in years is Fruitvale Station, based on the shooting death of a 22-year-old Hayward man, Oscar Grant, by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on New Year’s Eve in the first hours of 2009. Written and directed by the young Bay Area writer-director Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station has picked up critical acclaim. It has also been garnering criticism for departures from the real-life story on which it is based. 

What’s fact is that videos of the shooting, a horrific incident captured on cell phones and posted on the Internet, show BART officer Johannes Mehserle shooting a defenseless Grant in the back as Grant lies face-down on the platform at BART’s Fruitvale Station. The officer was charged with murder but claimed the shooting was an accident (he reached for his Taser and grabbed his gun) and was convicted on a lesser charge, spending only 11 months in prison. 

What’s imagined are many of the details about Grant (played by the irresistible Michael B. Jordan). The character we see on screen is probably more sympathetic than the real article, who spent two years in jail and had multiple run-ins with the law. An influential Variety review accused Coogler of creating a film that rings “false in its relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject.” 

Semi-fictional films often spark such criticisms, of course. And there are plenty of points to make about the particulars of shooting. But the facts-versus-fiction debate misses what’s great about Fruitvale Station: not the tragic crime at the end of the story but the pitch-perfect portrayal of the everyday lives of Californians. 

Not unlike Chinatown—which got some facts wrong and ended with a senseless police shooting but managed to say something essential about L.A. and the state—Fruitvale Station captures the constant struggle, the enduring beauty, and the cockeyed optimism that define today’s California. 

The film takes place over the last day of Grant’s life. We see the struggle in the daily routine of Grant, his girlfriend (and the mother of his daughter), his friends, and his mother. Their lives are defined by work—the girlfriend in some sort of service job, a friend at a grocery store, and the mother in what seems to be a mid-level managerial job. Grant’s own joblessness, which is related to time he spent in state prison and to a lack of discipline, is his core problem. One of the film’s better scenes is of the grocery manager refusing to rehire him, explaining that while he likes Grant, he wants to save precious jobs for people who show up to work on time. 

These difficult lives are juxtaposed with the beauty of their location in a way that should feel deeply familiar to Californians. Oakland, after all, is on San Francisco Bay, which appears in a scene in which Grant drives out to the shore to sell drugs to a friend but instead dumps the contraband into the water. In another scene, Grant encounters a dog that is hit by a car, but there’s no other person nearby to help. In this and other ways, the film captures a truth about the visually arresting, sun-bleached California landscape: that, for all the people here, the state can still feel empty. 

As tough as his life appears, Grant holds onto a belief that something better is possible. In one affecting moment, he speaks aloud the deepest dream of virtually every 21st-century California parent: He wants a topnotch private school education for his daughter. That such a hope is totally unjustified by his circumstances makes it all the more poignant. 

And then there’s the scene in which the movie captured me forever: an impromptu moment on the BART train in which Grant and an unruly, polyglot mix of passengers hear a song and start dancing, in unfettered joy. It’s fictional, yes, but as good a depiction of today’s California dream as anything you’ll ever see. 

From that point on, the film moves into the shooting and then peters out. The one truly false note comes at the end, when the film builds up a trifling statement from Grant’s mother—that she wishes he hadn’t taken the train on New Year’s Eve—into some sort of lesson. But, luckily, there’s a better lesson to be had: In today’s California, you need to get on the train, enjoy the journey and the scenery as best you can, and struggle with all your might to hang on. Because you never know when tragedy might end the ride.

(Joe Mathews is Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It [UC Press, 2010]. This column was posted first at … connecting people and ideas.)





Vol 11 Issue 70

Pub: Aug 30, 2013