Oscar Grant’s America: Fruitvale Station


Fruitvale Station is more than just the story of a black man with bad luck. It is a story about the foundation of the United States of America, and this country was founded on equal parts endurance and lies.

But I didn’t know that when I walked into the theater. I often joke about being “racially obligated” to do certain things: cheering for the team with a black quarterback, supporting Obama’s latest speech. My friends laugh, and I laugh with them, but only part of me is joking. And that sense obligation is what made me go see Fruitvale Station.

I knew the basics of the story, and if I didn’t, the film started with the infamous cell phone footage of Oscar Grant being shot in the back by a cop. I knew it was coming, but I still gasped and spent the next 90 minutes trying to find my breath.

For 90 minutes, I watched Michael B. Jordan portray Oscar Grant, a man under water. He’s a man hoping for one more chance to make things right with his girlfriend, his job, his daughter, and his mom. Fruitvale Station only shows us one day in his life, but that day explains the black male experience as well as the last 25 years of Spike Lee, the Hughes brothers, and John Singleton. Fruitvale Station captures both the promise of Obama’s “post-racial” America and the reality of race in Obama’s America.

Fruitvale Station is a study in endurance and endurance is an American virtue. We mythologized the Pilgrims’ first winters and get as close as we can to praising the Confederate soldiers for holding the Union hordes back for so long. Endurance wears many faces in the black community. Endurance. Grind. Hustle. They’re just different names for the god worshipped in Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the unofficial black National Anthem “We Shall Overcome,” and Tupac Shakur’s “Changes.” It’s the spiritual twin of the African distance runners who dominate marathons worldwide.

Chance is another thread that travels through Fruitvale Station. Chance encounters show Oscar Grant’s humanity and sense of humor. Chance encounters show his wavering fidelity and masculinity. Chance encounters lead to his death. In America, the idea of chance, or random occurrence, makes us uncomfortable. The American narrative says Columbus found America because God wanted him to find America. The Trail of Tears and the slave trade were necessary parts of Manifest Destiny. Things do not happen by accident. Oscar Grant couldn’t just get shot. We need to justify his death even more than the officer who ultimately went to prison for it.

While we deny the idea of chance in America, we embrace the idea of second chances, call our country a country of second chances. But really, it’s a euphemism. America is a country of second chances because America is a country of lies. Our heroes—Jay Gatsby, John Smith, Marilyn Monroe—build their legacies on their lies and the depths they are willing to dare to turn those lies into reality. We love the myth of America because we love the idea of being able to leave our past behind. In America, we can look in the mirror one day and say, “That’s not me.” And if we try hard enough, the world might believe us. In America, we can make history out of whole cloth. We can change our fate. And throughout Fruitvale Station, I watched a young man desperate to change his. Again, I knew how the story would end, but that didn’t stop me from rooting for Oscar Grant when he promised he wouldn’t get in trouble with the police again. That didn’t stop me from shaking my head when the doctors gave the news to his family.

oscarkidI’m not Oscar Grant; I’m an English teacher. However, Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station is the current state of America. This is most evident when Oscar helps a pregnant woman find a bathroom and has a conversation with her husband. The husband admits that his marriage didn’t start smoothly. He admits that he stole to put a ring on his wife’s finger. His nuclear, safe American family (white father, white mother, white child on the way) was built on a lie. However, he forged that lie into his American dream. He starts as a thief, and ends with a family and business cards to hand out to young black men looking to turn things around.

I know that guy. I went to school with that type of guy, lots of them, the guys with “do overs” spilling out of their back pockets.They bragged about not slowing down when they drove through a speed trap. After all, what can a cop do other than write a ticket? They knew they could get a Youthful Offender deal if the cop did manage to find the Ziploc bag under the driver’s seat. They quit their jobs on football weekends because a job was just a job. Growing up (and even now, somewhat) that’s what I wanted. Isn’t that a certain type of equality? Doesn’t being equal mean that I can give as few fucks as anyone else? But every time blue and red lights showed up in my rearview, I put two hands on the wheel and moved into the right-hand lane. When they said “Fuck this job,” I shrugged my shoulders and kept clocking in on time.

oscar faceIn 2009, for me and for blacks in general, it felt like our years of diligence were finally being rewarded. We were getting a black president. I was getting a master’s degree. The “American” in “African-American” was the word that mattered most. We made it to the White House. That had to count for something. I got a job teaching at a school that was segregated 50 years ago. I was a first generation college kid who was on his way to making it. I could have been the poster child for what could happen when black boys pulled up their pants and opened a book. I wasn’t the black boogeyman that made America reach for its gun. I wasn’t going to have to explain to people that I went to college on an academic scholarship, not an athletic one. As a race, we could finally exhale. That’s the lie we were telling ourselves heading into 2009.

The murder of Oscar Grant should have shattered that lie, and it shouldn’t have taken a movie, albeit a powerful movie, to cement his name as part of national conversations about race, violence, and justice. In many ways, Oscar Grant’s death is tragic because it is so mundane in this country. A black man was shot to death. A black man was a victim of police violence. The black community calls for justice. Justice doesn’t the answer the call.

Oscargrantkilledbypolice2On the surface, there’s nothing new here. But Oscar Grant was killed on New Year’s Day. He was killed on New Year’s. Fruitvale Station keeps reminding viewers of that. New Year’s is supposed to give everyone a clean record. For one day, we can forgive our friends’ unrealistic dreams. For one day, we can kiss someone just because we’re alive. We ignore the fireworks and gunshots and open beer containers. We celebrate this day because of its promise. This year could be the year we find love. This year could be the year we finally get a real job. But New Year’s Day is also another lie we’ve fallen in love with. At a New Year’s party, I’m the lame guy who will slap people on their shoulders and ask them about their goals for the next year. I make goals. A couple of years ago on New Year’s Day, I looked in the mirror and promised myself I would get a book deal. It was dumb promise, but my first book contract came in the mail a few months later. I know it’s really just a date on a calendar, but I believe anyway.

But it’s just a date on a calendar. We love the idea of being able to claim a new identity. But, more often than not, the world won’t let us forget who we are. Months and years can fall off the calendar like dead leaves. January 1 starts a new year, but it doesn’t make the bills on the counter disappear. The love handles don’t melt away when the ball drops in Times Square. In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant does his best to make a new way for himself. But he can’t. He can’t stop being a black man in America. His identity dooms him. Someone calls his name, and that leads to a bullet in his back.

During the last few moments of the film, I heard a few sniffles in the theater. We weren’t crying because it was a surprise. No matter how much I wanted to yell at the screen when Oscar decides to take the train home, I knew it was going to happen. No matter how much I wanted the doctors to give good news to his family, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. We knew how this story was going to end; that’s where the pain came from for me. We know that it doesn’t matter who sits in the White House. It doesn’t matter how much blood was spilled in Birmingham. It doesn’t matter how many laws are protected or gutted by the Supreme Court. Being black in America is still being black in America. 2009 changed a lot of things, but it didn’t change the color of our skin.

When I left the theater, two younger guys were in front of me. Baggy shorts, big t-shirts: they could have been cover models for an O’Reilly op-ed on wild black boys. But there was no wildness in their eyes. There was no swagger in their walk as we left the dark theater and stepped out into the light of a Friday afternoon. I thanked them for holding the door open for me. I’m pretty sure my voice cracked, and I’m pretty sure they noticed. They didn’t laugh. They didn’t smirk at the grown man who got shook up by a movie. They didn’t judge. They pretended they didn’t hear it. For a few seconds, the three of us allowed each other to escape expectations. After Fruitvale Station gave us a sobering dose of reality, the three of us took advantage of the chance to live in a lie, no matter how small it was.

Jason McCall is an Alabama native, and he currently teaches at the University of Alabama. He holds an MFA from the University of Miami, and his collections include Silver (Main Street Rag), I Can Explain (Finishing Line Press), Dear Hero, (winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize), and the forthcoming Mother, Less Child (winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize). More from this author →