If you haven’t yet seen Fruitvale Station, go see it now. This film will rip your heart open and leave you feeling raw, and you would be wise to let it do so. It will most likely change the way you see your students, in a way that will make you a better teacher. This film now tops my list of movies that teachers should see.
Fruitvale Station may remind you of the power of art and cinema and storytelling to build empathy, and you may find yourself incorporating more of this medium into your instructional plans for the year.
The film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old African American man killed by a public transit officer at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California. We know this at the beginning of the film—we see the real cell phone footage from New Year’s Eve 2009, showing Grant face down on the platform and the officer shooting him in the back.
Fruitvale Station was directed by Ryan Coogler, a young, African American man from the Bay Area. Coogler’s artistic genius is demonstrated in his recreation of Grant’s final 24 hours. We see Grant’s kindness, his stubbornness, his commitment to his daughter, the family and friends who care for him, and his efforts to get and keep a job and stay out of trouble. We see a vibrant, fully human being who has made mistakes and is far from perfect but perhaps because of that, we quickly connect with and care about him. We see what could have been the beginning of a—and yet, as we watch the complexity of Grant’s character unfold and as we sense the promise of his life, we know how this story ends on that platform of Fruitvale Station.
Hitting Close to Home
I watched the film with a combination of emotions that were so intense I thought I was going to be sick during much of the film. I’ve never felt like this before, but then again, there are few films that hit this close to home in so many ways and that are as tragic.
I live in Oakland. I taught at a school that is adjacent to Fruitvale Station. I have stood on that BART platform more times than I can count. I have hundreds of former students who were the same age as Grant when he was killed. I have taught dozens of boys who in so many ways resemble Oscar Grant, and it could easily have been one of them. My life’s work is about interrupting the structures of systemic oppression that funnel young men of color into prisons or graves. I am the mother of an African American boy.
In the days immediately after I saw Fruitvale Station, I felt a kind of depression and grief that I’ve only experienced when someone I loved died. This was a testament, I recognized, to Coogler’s filmmaking—his film made me feel like I knew Oscar Grant. I wanted to see him succeed and raise his baby girl and celebrate his mother’s birthday year after year and create the life he dreamt of. The loss and injustice are incomprehensible and irreconcilable.
Why You Should See This Film
This is a story that we should know. It’s one that will help us understand our students better—perhaps teachers in urban environments more than others, but I believe that all teachers everywhere can gain insight and understanding of young people through this film. It captures the complexity of life, particularly of young adult life, and even more so, young adult lives that are vulnerable and subject to the structural racism in our country. It raises uncomfortable questions that those of us who work within public or private institutions need to be exploring.
In addition, by viewing this film, we acknowledge that a young man named Oscar Grant once lived, and that his life was ended long before it should have been. The officer who shot Grant, Johannes Mehserle, claimed that he meant to reach for and use his taser gun. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months of a two-year sentence. In watching Fruitvale Station, we are witnesses to this tragedy and injustice, and perhaps we remember that while Oscar Grant was one individual, there are many other Oscar Grants in this country.
That’s also what made this film devastating, that reminder that this kind of killing has happened before and will happen again. Furthermore, it is reflected in the graduation and incarceration rates of African American men—the two are connected—and it is the moral imperative of those of us who work in this country, who operate under and aspire to the ideals put forth in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It is our obligation to find ways in our teaching and leadership to fulfill these ideals, to ensure that at some time in the future, young, unarmed black men can’t be yanked off a train and killed in front of hundreds of onlookers, and that if this happens, the killer doesn’t get off and get to enjoy his entire life.
See Fruitvale Station. By viewing it, you will be taking a small step toward creating a more just and equitable country.