We write our own stories. We draw our own character. Through our lives we make and invent ourselves, each decision shaping who we are, who we will be.
We imagine we have a full lifetime to tell our stories—70 or 80 or 90 years to define and redefine who we are. We have room to better ourselves. To change direction. To recover from mistakes.
But not everyone has that time. For some, their story ends mid-sentence, their character half-formed.
On the last day of 2008, Oscar Grant is patching up his past. He's no hero. His rap sheet says that much. The 22-year-old black man is a convicted felon—a prison vet and sometime drug dealer. He's been unfaithful to his girlfriend. And just two weeks before, he was fired from his job at a local grocery store.
Oscar's no villain either. Blessed with a warm heart and a gracious character, he's never been as tough as some thought he was (or as he pretended to be). He may not have a job right now, but he has responsibilities, and he takes them seriously. He wants his longtime squeeze to approve of him. He has a daughter in preschool and a mother who never gave up on him. And he's sick of letting them all down.
He needs money, and he could sell a bag of weed he's stashed away to pay the rent. Instead he dumps it in the San Francisco Bay. When he tells Sophina, his girlfriend, what he did, she's so proud, so worried.
"What are you gonna do?" she asks.
"Something legal," he says.
And so the year's last day lurches along with better intentions. He helps a woman in the grocery store, mourns a dog hit by a car. He play-wrestles with his nieces and nephews. He coaxes his little girl into brushing her teeth. He celebrates his mom's birthday with much of his extended family, and he promises Sophina that they'll go to San Francisco to watch the New Year's fireworks. When his daughter worries for him, Oscar says he'll be just fine.
Maybe he believes it. After all, tomorrow is a new year. It may be a new beginning. He has time to reshape his life into something good and worthwhile.
Oscar smiles as he gets on the train at Fruitvale Station in Oakland. His friends are with him for a night of fun. His girl's on his arm. His future lies before him in all its imagined glory.
Real-life newspaper headlines in January 2009 told us Oscar Grant never made it home that night. Fruitvale Station is a tragedy. But as is the case with many tragedies, there are lessons we can learn from it.
Oscar loves the three women in his life—his mother, his girlfriend and his daughter. And he's trying to do right by all of them, especially his daughter, Tatiana. Sure, he wasn't always the best of dads or the most reliable of role models. Truth be told, he still isn't. But he's trying. And that's an admirable start.
As noted, he dumps out his weed. He helps a stranger in the grocery store pick out fish for her fish fry. He encourages a reluctant shopkeeper to let a pregnant woman use the store's private restroom. He befriends a stray dog—moments before it's hit by a car.
The dog appears to be a pit bull, and is perhaps a metaphor for Oscar himself. The animal may look pretty fearsome, but he's a right friendly pooch. And Oscar, deep down, is a pretty nice guy too. But some folks might not see that side of him—obscured by the color of his skin, his clothes or the guys he hangs around with. Indeed, throughout Oscar's story we see hints of subtle racism, used by Fruitvale Station to powerfully remind us how pervasive and ultimately horrific stereotyping people (no matter what the criteria) can be. Its antidote? Showing us that all people are human beings, worthy of our consideration and our empathy, even when they haven't figured out every angle on life.
I should also make note of Oscar's longsuffering mother, Wanda, who faithfully visits Oscar in prison … until she decides that the kid needs a swift kick in the rear. She's a beautiful example of strength, stability and love—encouraging calm in explosive situations, boosting spirits and doing what she can to keep her family together.
Wanda doesn't just encourage calm and boost spirits, she also pushes for prayer. She tells Oscar that she'll keep praying for him (even if she stops visiting). During her birthday dinner, she leads her family in a mealtime prayer. And as doctors try to save Oscar's life, she clasps her hands together and again leads friends and family in prayer: "Heal him, dear Lord, so we can hold him and see his smile again."
Oscar, who says he'd like to marry Sophina when he has enough money to buy a ring, clearly has a sexual relationship with her. They've had a daughter together, for one thing. And the two engage in some onscreen foreplay, kissing and caressing while she tugs his shirt off. Oscar grabs Sophina's rear in the kitchen. We see her in her underwear.
Sophina confronts Oscar about a fling he had with another woman at one point. "I f‑‑‑ed with her that one time," Oscar insists. "No," Sophina amends. "You got caught that one time." Oscar says the affair is over and that he just wants to be with Sophina and their daughter "forever," and Sophina's reaction suggests it's the first time her man has really committed to lifelong monogamy.
Oscar and his friends run into two women on the train who say they're lesbians. After they reject the passes of a couple of guys, the guys joke, "We gay too!" When they're all on the train at the stroke of midnight, several couples kiss—including the two ladies.
Oscar's death at the hands of the police is the crux of Fruitvale Station. We see the real-life confrontation (which was recorded by several bystanders) in the opening moments of the movie: Police and their detainees shout and sometimes scuffle. Oscar is eventually thrown to the ground and held down by an officer—and then we hear a pop.
The movie's re-creation is more graphic, but only incrementally so: Oscar struggles with the police and is wrestled to the ground. The ensuing gunshot is heard as the camera focuses on Oscar's stunned face. "You shot me," he says, his mouth filling with blood. Once in the hospital, we see the bullet hole in his back and doctors removing the slug from his bloody body.
Oscar gets into a fight with a guy he knew from prison; it's the trigger altercation that brings the police into the situation in the first place. We see someone get hit in the face during the confused and jumbled melee that takes place in the middle of a crowded train car. Several African-Americans are then detained (Oscar's white assailant isn't noticed as he hides on the train), and when Oscar's shot, his friends struggle and swear against the officers who are carting them off to the police station.
One year earlier, Oscar has to be forcibly detained by prison guards as he tries to follow his mom out of the visitors area, pleading for her to give him a hug.
We see the hurting, bleeding, dying body of the dog that gets hit by the car.
Crude or Profane Language
Not counting the sometimes obscene rap soundtrack layered behind everything, we hear nearly 60 f-words, another 40 or 50 s-words and at least a dozen uses of the n-word. Also: "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑y." God's name is misused at least twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
As mentioned, Oscar has dabbled in dealing drugs. He stores a bag of marijuana in his closet for a while and makes plans to sell the stuff to someone. He backs out of the deal, though, dumping the bag into the ocean and giving the would-be buyer a smaller stash (as a gift). We see him and others smoke blunts (cigars stuffed with marijuana).
Before going to see the fireworks, Oscar tells his mother that he doesn't plan on drinking. But after Wanda convinces him to take the train into the city instead of driving, he apparently changes his mind: Both he and his friends drink from small whiskey bottles and flasks. The friends talk about getting drunk.
Other Negative Elements
In prison, Oscar must submit to a body cavity search, and we see the side of his bare backside as he bends over for inspection. There's a joking reference to public urination.
We can't truly know why the real Oscar Grant died—not really. The police officer who killed him said in court he only meant to use a Taser on the man, and pulled the gun by mistake. The jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter, and he served 11 months of his two-year sentence. The NAACP denounced the verdict, stating, "We are outraged that the jury did not find guilty of murder in a case that is so egregiously excessive and mishandled."
But Fruitvale Station doesn't really set out to settle that issue. And it's not trying to retry the case. Questions of what happened down in that station are almost secondary here. Instead, the camera looks unblinkingly at Oscar himself. It turns its narrative to the bleeding body in the station—the life that could've been—and says, simply, What a waste.
In the film, a hundred decisions led to the tragedy. A thousand factors were in play. When Oscar wanted to just go home, Sophina encouraged him to go out. When Oscar wanted to drive, Wanda advised taking the train. And then add in an old foe, Oscar's simmering anger, and a handful of anxious policemen who'd already dealt with a night full of drunks and vandals and violent revelers. In the wake of the result, we're all bound to ask ourselves the inevitable what ifs. But the ifs and whats and even unanswered prayers aren't the focus of Fruitvale Station either. This is: A 22-year-old man lies dead, and a little girl has lost her father.
It's a movie that centers on violence and swirls with obscenities. It's also a powerful movie. It's a movie with an important story to tell, one of a man whose own story should've had chapters and chapters left. It tells us all that our decisions matter. It reminds us of how unfair life can be. It instructs us to look at every single soul around us as a person, not a statistic or a color. And it insists that time should never, ever be wasted. Because none of us knows how much time we have left.