by Nancy Smith, Field Trainer, Pima County Superior Court, Tucson
The film Fruitvale Station is a film any judicial educator could use as a basis for a serious discussion of racism in America. The film illustrates the chasms that separate people of different colors and how involvement in the criminal justice system negatively impacts the lives of those caught up in it. Yet the film portrays its protagonist realistically, without sugarcoating his very real problems and culpability. Viewers see a person stigmatized in many ways by society and by his own actions, and unable regardless of his efforts to find his way out of the downward spiral of his life. Just when the audience is hopeful, everything goes wrong.
Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, is a 22 year-old black man from Hayward, CA who spent 2 years in prison for drugs. He is a hothead and often irresponsible. Oscar is trying to redeem his life by getting his job back, staying honest, helping his family and raising his young daughter. He has the support of his mother and grandmother, but his sister takes from him and his girlfriend is tired of his inability to be straight with her. In the end, Oscar dies when a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer shoots him in the back during a struggle in the train station.
The struggle and gunshot are captured by numerous cell phones, and cell phones play a major role both in the trial of the officer and in the film. The power of connectedness, both positive and negative, resonates throughout. Witnesses stated that they began filming with their phones because what was happening to Oscar and his friends in the train station “wasn’t right.” Despite many angles from many cell phones, we are left without all the answers about the shooting.
While watching this film, the viewer struggles with the opposing sides of Oscar – is he a good guy or a bad guy? Is he trying or not? Is he right or wrong? Is he responsible or not?
Racism is a major theme in the film. The big question is, “would Oscar have been shot if he had been white?” But the questions raised by the film go much further than that. As court employees, we might ask ourselves if he would have been in prison if he were white. Would he have had a dad in his life if he were white? Would he have been able to hold onto his job if he were white? We can never know.
The juxtaposition of black and white, good and bad creates many questions and some anxiety for viewers. It also provides ample opportunity to facilitate meaningful discussions about where we as a society and where we as a court system need to go to solve the problems depicted in the movie. This film begs its audience to realize that all human lives deserve basic dignity. Winner of several awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, it would be a valuable addition to any educator’s library.