The Soapbox: On The Forgotten Women Of “Fruitvale Station”
Everything you’ve heard about “Fruitvale Station” is true. The biopic, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at Sundance, explores the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man from Oakland who was shot and killed by a BART officer on New Year’s Day in 2009.
The movie flashes between the past and the present, exploring Grant’s relationship with his four-year-old daughter, his mom, and his girlfriend, who was with him on the night he was shot. After a scuffle on the BART, Grant and his friends, who are all people of color, were detained on the platform. Numerous witnesses filmed the incident with their cell phone cameras, including the moment when Grant, who was unarmed and being restrained by several officers, was shot in the back. That cop claimed he had meant to reach for his Taser; he served less than one year of prison. My three friends and I legitimately bawled for the last 10 minutes of the film.
“Fruitvale Station” is an intense, deeply sad, yet at moments quite funny film that is certainly more poignant at this exact moment given the recent trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot 16-year-old Trayvon Martin, also an unarmed Black man (well, teen). It would be impossible to watch “Fruitvale Station” — so named for the BART station where Grant was shot — without empathizing with the chaos and injustice that the Martin family must have felt that February day.
Watching the film, I was blown-away impressed by the work of director Ryan Coogler, the then-26-year-old director, and the incredible performance of Michael B. Jordan (from “Friday Night Lights” and “The Wire”) as Oscar Grant. Jordan manages to portray Grant as someone you’re not even sure you like very much but still care very deeply for. However, I was most struck by Oscar’s mom, Wanda Grant, and Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophina, in the film — not just the acting of Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) and Melonie Diaz (“Raising Victor Vargas”) respectively, but the roles these women played in his life.
Oscar Grant probably wasn’t any more or less confused or aimless than other 22-year-olds, but he had a couple complications to work through. He has just lost his job at a grocery store for repeatedly showing up late. He served time in prison for what is alluded to be drug-related offenses. In the film, he’s still selling drugs, but we see him make the decision to stop once and for all. At the very beginning of the film, we find out he was recently caught cheating on his girlfriend who isn’t about to forgive him easily. On top of all this, he has a bright four-year-old daughter, Tatiana, who needs his attention and love.
But it became clear to me from the film that Oscar Grant — at least this slightly fictionalized biopic-version of him — was supported by, if not completely propped up by, the women in his life. One has to wonder who he would have been without his mother and his girlfriend beside him. Both women are forced to stay strong for others, particularly Oscar and Tatiana, and you can’t help but wonder if they’ve got anyone to lean on who can be strong for them.
His mom, Wanda, plays an uplifting presence in the film, always worrying over him, whether it’s during a visit to prison or in the ER; she also provides him firm guidance and, clearly, unconditional love. You walk away from “Fruitvale Station” thinking, Why did this poor, lovely woman have to put up with so much shit? Octavia Spencer really captures what it must be like for the mother of a young man of color, knowing and constantly worrying about how society’s cards are stacked against her Black son.
Grant’s girlfriend, Sophina, also stands out in the film. She’s in love with a man who is a good father but unfaithful partner, trying to do his best to provide for his family but clearly lacking some of the maturity to navigate choppy waters. You clearly see how pained she is and how trapped she feels, but at the same time she’s staying strong for the sake of her family. There’s an absolutely terrifying scene in which Sophina, who is elsewhere in the same BART station, here’s a gunshot go off. She starts freaking out, wondering if it has been one of her friends or Grant who was shot. An ambulance and more police arrive, but no one will tell her what’s going on. The police hold her back behind the yellow tape. Even when she sees Grant being wheeled away on a stretcher, bleeding, the BART police and the paramedics won’t give her a straight answer about what happened. Watching that scene, a line from a recent New York magazine piece by the musician Questlove about the Trayvon Martin trial popped into my head: “You ain’t shit.” Apparently, a woman of color whose Black boyfriend was just shot by a white police officer still isn’t worth enough to even tell her what’s going on. If Melonie Diaz isn’t nominated for an Oscar for her performance in this, I don’t know what I’ll do.
Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz aren’t being marketed as the stars of the film; understandably, Coogler and Jordan are. But I wouldn’t want them not get the credit they deserve, not only for being fantastic actresses, but for portraying a marginalized group of women who are so often overlooked when society talks about problems facing Black men. It is subtly referred to in the film that Sophina really struggled being a single parent when Oscar was locked up. Him returning to prison has the very real possibility of plunging her and Tatiana into poverty. It makes one realize how rarely we see low-income folks depicted on the big screen.
Aspects of Sophina and Wanda Grant’s stories resonated with me, albeit on a much smaller level, but it also underlined privileges I’ve enjoyed without realizing it in similar situations. My brother went away to prison when I was 16 years old and a junior in high school. That’s a life experience that isn’t reflected for me in a lot in pop culture. For a few weeks, I’ve been working my way through the Netflix series, “Orange Is The New Black,” which also deals with incarceration, and finding parts — particularly when Piper calls home to her loved ones or is visited by family members in jail — difficult and uncomfortable to watch. Perhaps I just haven’t gone far enough into the series yet, but I really do not relate at all to Piper’s boyfriend Larry and his goofy cheerfulness on “OITNB.” That’s not even close to how I felt, a sideline cheerleader. Wanda’s painful visit to see her son in prison in “Fruitvale Station” — as someone who is suffering silently but strongly while someone she loves is fucking up their life — was a lot more emotionally resonant for me, causing a lot of those complicated feelings — anger, sadness, embarrassment, relief, fear — to resurface again (fortunately with the fresh eyes of someone who is 12 years older and better supported at dealing with them). The women of “Fruitvale Station,” at least, inspired me in the sense that I know I’m not going through these complicated feelings alone.
Additionally, both the movie and the show have underscored for me many of the privileges that I’ve enjoyed in life as they pertain to having a loved one who was incarcerated. “OITNB” has made me realize what kind of racial advantages my brother, who is white, may have experienced in prison; “Fruitvale Station,” in particular, has made me realize how privileged I was to have the economic means to leave (“escape”) a toxic home life — in my case, for college — which is an option Sophina and her daughter don’t/didn’t have. And even though my brother continued to make many poor decisions after he got out of prison, he was never racially profiled, detained and murdered by a cop because of the color of his skin. He has lived the privilege of being just another white guy wearing a hoodie, not a default suspicious person.
Both the show and the movie have prompted me to respect Wanda Grant and Sophina in a way that I otherwise may not have been aware of: these women had to be strong for a man in their lives with very little support other than each other. Even when they are treated like they ain’t shit, they faced it all and kept going. They did what they needed to do because that was the only choice that existed.
My heart broke for Oscar Grant and his daughter Tatiana. But my admiration and respect goes out to his mother and the girlfriend, who shouldn’t be mere window dressing in this film. They’re the real heroes of “Fruitvale Station.”