Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is less about American violence and more about American vulnerability. Specifically, the lack thereof. Violence, always the former, is ubiquitous, a consistent trend. The latter, vulnerability, is buried, both subtle and invisible. Violence and vulnerability are mutually exclusive, though America would love to say this isn’t true. Surely our inability to be naked, honest, and genuine doesn’t coincide with violent tendencies? It’s true, and we are ashamed to admit it, but also putting down that shame and letting our vulnerability show would mean removing the mask of I’m not rich enough, which could also be I’m not cool enough, high enough, loving enough, strong enough, nice enough, honest, consistent and especially in the case of this film, man enough. Coogler’s film highlights that the guise we blindly maintain is detrimental to us all, especially for those already marginalized.
Michael B. Jordan dons the real life of Oscar Grant III, a twenty-two-year-old father shot and murdered early on New Year’s Day in 2009. Grant lives with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), in Bay Area California. After the film opens with a cell phone recording of Oscar’s eventual homicide, it cuts to twenty-four hours prior. This morning, Tatiana needs to get to school, and Oscar needs to stop denying he cheated on his girlfriend, who needs to be dropped off at work. But Oscar barely feels like he has the time for any of this. Oscar wears layers of posture, shame, and vulnerability, the same layers many other twenty-first-century Americans put on. His significant other is pained by rumors of infidelity and he wants to put that to rest, but he’s ashamed of the past and can’t even touch the deeper reason for why he cheated in the first place. It’s easiest to yell and admit to infidelity once and leave the matter there. His layers stay intact and the situation is considered handled, over, and better, but no one really feels better—they just feel over it and handled.
Oscar effortlessly sneaks an extra fruit snack for his daughter before dropping her off at school, but discussing his past with Sophina drains him; it’s difficult work to constantly hide those places where we’re most vulnerable. His car, also running on empty, has enough gas to make it to Sophina’s work, but their relationship is still strained. His girlfriend and daughter, much like his mother, grandmother, and sister, can warm him enough to convince him to let his guard down and be real, but even in those moments, there’s a heavy shame that Oscar cannot move past. He regrets not pushing his daughter to begin school earlier since she’s tested for gifted. He regrets going to jail and straining his relationship with his mother. He should not still sell weed to fill in the gaps of his lost employment. And like many ex-inmates, he should not have lost his job just for being late. But he did. And he’s lying about it to everyone who will listen.
We struggle with shame and can’t even specify why we maintain it or what we would feel like if we let go of it. That first layer of armor, though, the posture of anger or posture of distance, helps guarantee that we don’t have to immediately reveal what we are ashamed of. Letting go of the shame, guilt, and regret would free Oscar, allow him to reveal the spaces where he feels vulnerable, inadequate, or not good enough. This would feel like freedom. But many of the men in Oscar’s life don’t come close to hearing or feeling the Oscar that doesn’t feel good enough; a trusted buyer, a best friend at the local grocery store, an old boss, and an enemy from jail only get the reserved form of Oscar because this guise is what allows Oscar to exist in their world. He is so reserved and tight lipped, he can’t even admit to his friend and old co-worker that he didn’t earn his job back after waiting expectantly, begging, and threatening, all in the span of a few minutes.
After finishing morning errands, Oscar drives by his old job in order to try again to regain employment and pick up food for his mother’s birthday party later that night. Oscar’s mother (played by Octavia Spencer, who also co-produced the film) becomes the backdrop for much of the film since her birthday is Oscar’s main focus. When Oscar stops by the grocery store, he checks on his friend and reminds him about the party. Cato (played by the director’s brother Keenan Coogler) won’t come through, but they do plan to meet up later to celebrate NYE. During this scene, Oscar notices a young woman at the seafood counter struggling to decide what to purchase. An initial read of this situation comes across as predatory, but eventually Oscar asks if she needs help. He retains his mask and tells her that he works at the grocery store and is on his day off. Once she warms up, he gives her advice on fish and even calls his grandmother so the buyer can speak with her. This moment displays a strength in Oscar, because he is invested in helping others, especially because it doesn’t cost him anything. But his shame, in this case about his job and past, is so entrenched that he once again can’t fathom putting the mask down.
Coogler juxtaposes this moment with Oscar momentarily leaving the conversation to check in with his old boss. Someone new has been hired within the past two weeks and they’ve never been late to work. Oscar moves from inquiring about his old job, to pleading for a second chance, to harassing in order to get what he wants. Within minutes, Oscar has employed techniques that probably work in other interactions. Whichever posture or approach is necessary or fitting, he’s willing to put that on. It’s difficult to discuss Oscar’s fate—if only he would have accepted his loss of employment two weeks ago, admitted it to his girlfriend, who by this point in the film is still unaware, and began searching for more work. Refusing to change is the delicate theme of the film, all because Oscar will not survive the film. We can’t forget he’s murdered off screen at the beginning of the film, so death looms for the remainder.
When Oscar finishes his errands of seeking employment, picking up groceries, and disavowing selling marijuana—he treats a trusted buyer to free ounces and dumps the rest in the ocean—he finally has time to celebrate his mother’s birthday with Tatiana, Sophina, and close family. Sophina asks if the two of them will still go to the city for NYE, and Oscar takes his mother’s advice to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit. He considers staying in but wants to make her happy. After dropping Tatiana off with a relative, the couple meets up with friends and takes the train to the city. After celebrating and leaving to return home, a moment of tension and release ensues. Oscar moves forward in the train to find a place to sit, coincidentally running into the young woman from earlier at the grocery store. She yells his name and sets up an opportunity for him to be vulnerable by checking in on her and her boyfriend, but an ex-inmate also hears Oscar’s name, boasts toward him, and begins a fight. When the train stops and participants are pulled out along with Oscar—by police officers—his psyche cannot survive. Within minutes, he goes back and forth between begging his friends to be calm and patient while he yells at the police. This scene places the posture of two groups of men, police and citizens, in conflict because both groups are afraid to show vulnerability. Violence is the only option and merely continues the cycle.
Note: Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame heavily inspired this piece. You can read more about her at brenebrown.com.