Fruitvale Station: A Story of Police Brutality and Institutionalized Racism
The film “Fruitvale Station,” directed and written by Ryan Coogler is a story based on the death of Oscar Grant. Grant was a young man from Hayward, California who was fatally shot on New Year’s Eve after an altercation with a BART transit police officer in 2009. He left behind his girlfriend Sophina and four-year-old daughter Tatiana. “Fruitvale Station” describes Grant’s life and the events leading up to his death. The significance of this true story lies in the aftermath of his death which sparked a series of protests and riots against the injustice of police brutality. The officer who killed Grant was charged with involuntary manslaughter and served a mere 11 months in jail, claiming he mistook his gun for his taser.
This film highlights many injustices that black communities face in the modern era. One being the criminalization and vilification of black men. This theme is demonstrated in a beautifully complex manner throughout the entirety of this film. Oscar Grant is portrayed as a family man living in a low-income neighborhood and displays his daily efforts to remove his family from poverty. At the beginning of the film, Sophina pleads Oscar to stop dealing marijuana. Although Oscar acknowledges the fact that dealing illegal drugs is undoubtedly a risky form of income, he feels as though his hand is forced due to his recent termination from his job at a grocery store. This situation is very common among many low-income communities. Oftentimes, finding jobs with a stable income and employment benefits can be difficult and many turn to illegal activity due to its highly lucrative and fast-paced nature. While dealing drugs comes with high risk to all that choose to participate and black people do not participate in this at a higher rate than their counterparts, there is an alarmingly disproportionate amount of black males incarcerated for dealing substances such as marijuana than there are white males. “In the United States, Black men are six times as likely to go to jail or prison as white men.” (Smiley and Fakunle 6) This is largely due to the tendency for law enforcement to racially profile black individuals. In the text “Freedom on My Mind” racial profiling is defined as “Using race, rather than specific evidence, to determine how a person should be treated.”(Martin, Bay, and White) It is also noted in the text that “An inordinate number of African Americans are imprisoned for minor offenses because they are more likely than whites to be arrested.”
Oscar comes to a turning point in which he throws away his stash of drugs which symbolizes him letting go of a lifestyle that imprisoned him for many years. Oscar also displays his caring and empathetic nature throughout the film. He is a devoted and loving father to his young daughter Tatiana as well as a caring son to his mother and the rest of his relatives. At one point in the film, he is brought to tears when he discovers on the side of the road a wounded dog that was hit by a car. All of these scenes convey his goodhearted and nonviolent nature. These scenes are integral to the main message of the movie because they show Oscar’s humanity. The audience of the movie falls in love with Oscar and his whole family for their close-knit and unconditionally loving connection. These are qualities that go against the stereotyped, vilified notion of the black male. Among the negative vocabulary used to describe black males is the word “thug,” in an article titled “The demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America” by Calvin John Smiley and David Fakunle, this word is well-defined. According to the author, “This term has become the platform to dismiss Black life as less valuable and perpetuates a negative and criminal connotation in forms of micro-insults and micro-invalidations. Moreover, the recent killings of unarmed Black men have sparked discussion and discourse surrounding the term “thug” and how it is used in the context of reshaping perceptions of Black life broadly and Black males specifically.” (Smiley and Fakunle 2)
These stereotypes of black males have been around for hundreds of years and have been perpetrated by white society as a means of oppression. The notion of the black male as a “brute” or “thug” can be seen in history through the Jim Crow era when black males were seen as a threat to white society as well as specifically white females and were often wrongly accused of crimes. These “crimes” resulted in the extrajudicial murder of black men – lynching – carried out by whites in the community including law enforcement. (Martin, Bay, and White)
The most heartbreaking part of the film is the end in which Oscar Grant is shot, unarmed, in front of his friends and family. The contrast between the audiences’ perception of Oscar and the way the BART police officers viewed him is very evident. The officers’ comportment is highly aggressive and impatient from the beginning. It is obvious that their manner of dealing with this altercation was highly racially motivated. This perfectly conveys the ideology of the “brute” or “thug” black male that the officers thought they were dealing with. Since the film dives deep into the personality and psyche of Oscar Grant, the audience is well aware of how the officers are misinterpreting Oscar and profiling him due to his race. I, as well as many others who have seen this film, have been very emotionally moved by the raw portrayal of this act of injustice.
This racial ideology of black men is still prevalent in modern society when examining the justice system as a whole. Police brutality is a violent reflection of these ideologies that have continued in our society despite the laws in place that afford inalienable rights to all citizens in our country. Oscar Grant was one of far too many whose lives have been taken as a result of racial profiling and acts of brutality within our justice system. This film closely examines just one story of the various societal struggles black family men encounter in their lives. It demonstrates the ways in which black males are limited from reaching their full potential due to preconceived ideologies of what a black man should be, institutional racism, and state-sanctioned violence. Oscar is burdened with the decision between providing for his family and engaging in illegal drug activity, he is also burdened with striving to be the best man and father he could be and simultaneously being viewed by outsiders as a dangerous criminal due to his skin color.
Smiley, CalvinJohn, and David Fakunle. “From ‘Brute’ to ‘Thug:’ The Demonization and Criminalization of Unarmed Black Male Victims in America.” Journal Of Human Behavior In The Social Environment, vol. 26, no. 3–4, 2016, pp. 350–66. PubMed Central, doi:10.1080/10911359.2015.1129256.
Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents. https://platform.virdocs.com/r/s/0/doc/233335/sp/9912007/mi/32625521?cfi=%2F4%2F2%5Bpreface%5D%2F2%2F2.