Spoken by the young child Tatiana Grant at the end of Ryan Cooglers’s Fruitvale Station, “Where’s Daddy?” is destined to join “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” as one of filmdom’s most memorable concluding lines. Indeed, Fruitvale’s dramatization of an actual, quite recent incident—compared to Chinatown’s allegorical compositing of several disparate and distant events—renders its “message” even more topically resonant.
Before we enter the theater (or view the film in any format), we all know the immediate answer to Tatiana’s query: her 22-year-old black father, Oscar Grant, was shot in the back and killed by a white BART police officer in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 2008 as Grant lay face down on the concrete floor at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. Tragic enough, on an intensely personal level—so intense that one patron at the screening I attended actually shouted “No!” when the deadly shot rang out. Compounding the tragedy and worthy of another “No!” was the reduced 11-month sentence for involuntary manslaughter that the officer, Johannes Mehserle, received, based on his claim that he thought he had fired his taser, not his real gun.
Once the screen goes black, however, the larger, collective tragedy of “Where’s Daddy?”—and Fruitvale Station—begins to emerge. Besides Grant’s shooting’s obvious association—in the inciting act and trial result—with the Trayvon Martin case, its implications reverberate geographically far beyond Fruitvale Station or the East Bay area and temporally way, way back to the future.
“Where’s Daddy?” has been, and likely will continue to be for some time, an all-too-common plaint of children in our disproportionately profiled, impoverished, incarcerated black (and brown) communities. Their daddies, in far too many cases, are either dead, deadbeat, or behind bars—for 11 years or more, most often for a non-lethal crime and with a mandatory minimum sentence.
Oscar Grant himself had served time. The jailing even came back to haunt him at Fruitvale. A chance meeting and fistfight on the BART train, with a white former prison-mate who harbored a grudge, precipitated the police roundup (of Grant and his black buddies, not the prison-mate or any of his white cohorts) that ended with Grant’s shooting.
While black-white conflict unavoidably undergirds Fruitvale’s last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the race card is not dealt from a stacked deck. Grant’s loving, live-in girlfriend, for example, is a Latina. Grant shares a color-blind moment with a white couple on the night of the shooting, and an earlier scene at a fish counter is particularly deftly handled. When an attractive white woman, preparing for a Southern fish fry, asks the black man behind the counter, with delicious (if unintentional) irony, “Can you show me your sole?” Grant, standing nearby, offers to help. After initially shying away from the black man, the woman warms to him and gratefully takes the cell phone advice from his grandma.
Even good Karma has it in for Grant, however, as it’s the woman’s coincidental running into Grant on the train that night, and her well-meaning blurting out of his name, that triggers the fight with the vengeful prison-mate and pulls the switch on Fate.
Besides the superb writing, directing, and acting, fortune smiles on Fruitvale, the movie, in another important respect. Witnessing yet another black man fall victim to senseless violence is painful enough. Being subjected yet again to black men’s overall portrayal as unemployed or underemployed at best, predatory criminals at worst, would be unbearable. Fruitvale Station is spared this ignominy, but only barely. The film dutifully presents Grant as loving father, son, and potential husband. And liberal viewers, at least, can partially write off his drug-dealing and imprisonment to the System. But it takes the black male surgeon, who strives ardently but in vain to stop Grant’s massive internal bleeding, to paint a more hopefully heterogeneous picture of African Americans in general.
A Boyz n the Hood for the 2010s, both in its unflinching yet balanced depiction of inner-city black life and in its masterful filmmaking by another black film-school grad from USC, Fruitvale Station’s doubly tragic tale promises to become as much of a classic—and wake-up call—as its John Singleton-directed forebear.
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal State LA, and Pierce College. He is the author of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers Press, 2006). His newest book, on Los Angeles, was published in early 2013.