‘Fruitvale Station’ Review: Film About Oscar Grant’s Death Captures the Horrors of Arbitrary Violence


For as long as I could remember, I’ve been a fan of horror films. From Stephen King’s Carrie, to Paranormal Activity, to the upcoming, The Conjuring, I’m intrigued by the sense of foreboding and sudden adrenaline rush from the fear of the unknown.

If you’re a scary movie buff, you know that a common thread of the classic chillers is rarely just blood, guts and gore, but good old-fashioned human empathy. You cheer for the tormented teen using her telekinetic powers against bullies. You care that close-knit families escape the evil spirits in their homes because they appear likeable.

If Americans rally against demons unseen in fright flicks, how do we fight the elephant in the room – the persisting narratives in film, media and popular culture that paint African American characters – real or fictional – as less sympathetic? What must the world see to understand their pain?

Fruitvale Station raises these questions without anger or editorializing. An independent triumph, it is sad, beautifully acted and impactful. Ryan Coogler wrote and directed the winner of multiple awards Sundance Film Festival awards, telling the story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black unarmed black man killed by BART transit cops in Oakland, California on January 1, 2009.

Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) stars as Grant, who at the time of his murder, was on a path to redemption. We see glimpses of his past troubles, but the overlying story is of a young man’s hope to usher in a better life with the pending New Year.

The story, both in real and dramatized form is painful to watch. Equally unsettling is the notion that many African Americans must go to great lengths to tell “positive” stories simply to be humanized. It is not enough to know that a transit officer should not shoot in the back an unarmed civilian after he is handcuffed in a prone position on a crowded subway platform. We must also know that Oscar Grant was a loving father, boyfriend, son and friend. We have to see numerous examples of his goodness as reminders that he “mattered” and did not deserve to die.

Coincidentally, the film’s limited national release came just one day before the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, found not guilty for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The teen was profiled while returning to his father’s condo community in Sanford, Florida. Martin, unlike Grant, was not returning from a celebration, there were no videos, no eyewitness, just a boy wearing a hoodie trying to come in from a 7-Eleven in the rain. Martin, even in death, was portrayed as a danger to the community, not Zimmerman, a 29-year-old neighborhood watch captain who did not identify himself, following closely in the dark.

Sadly Grant and Martin represent only two of the many tales of unmitigated terror in racial profiling. It is born of a real sense of fear and powerlessness, not apparitions or intangible forces, but real hands, real guns, real violence.

This is “normal” activity in the horror stories that keep me up at night.

Shannon Barbour is a freelance writer whose work appears in Creative Loafing Atlanta, Upscale Magazine and more. She also contributed to Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label. See more of her work at The Secret Life of Shannon B.

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