“Fruitvale Station:” Check your stereotypes at the ticket counter

The Jan. 1, 2009 headlines said: “22-year-old, unarmed black man fatally shot by BART police.” For too many Americans, it was just another example of—choose your cliché from the list—[police brutality] [urban crime] [gun violence] [New Year’s Eve drunkenness] [racial profiling] [rowdy teenagers getting in trouble..again].

The headline gave the surface view. The stereotypes in the list kicked in immediately. In reality, we found out in the days that followed, the incident was some of the above, all of the above, and none of the above.

That’s what the newly released movie, “Fruitvale Station” makes you think about. In telling the story of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, “Fruitvale Station” avoids clichés and hype, hewing closely to the events leading up to Grant’s death, handcuffed, lying on his stomach on the BART station floor, and shot in the back at point-blank range by an overzealous, or confused, or panicked, or racist [choose your descriptor] transit cop.

It’s not a “true-crime story,” in the usual sense—the ones that are ostensibly “ripped from the headlines” and then embellished with outrageous special effects and plot twists.  Nor is it a superhero story. There are no car crashes, heroic rescues, exploding bombs, severed body parts, or slo-mo shots of bullets. Rather, it’s the straightforward story of one troubled young man, trying to put his life back together for the sake of his girlfriend, his mother, and the four-year-old daughter he adores.

What we see in this movie—as opposed to the typical American blockbuster—is Oscar’s humanity, the complexities of his circumstances, and the pressures closing in around him. He’s multi-dimensional—not just a “punk,” as he might be stereotyped by his prison record—and not a punk transformed into a saint. He makes some bad choices. He has trouble controlling his anger. But he’s warm, tender and involved in the details of his daughter’s life [in one scene, he fixes her hair]. He wants to do better, but turning things around is complicated.

In other words, Oscar Grant is portrayed as a person, not a type.

Watching this powerful, emotionally wrenching story unfold, with its simply told, up-close feel and dialogue that sounded spontaneous and authentic, I couldn’t help thinking about my own prejudices and stereotyped views of “criminals,” “victims,” and people who are culturally different from my own white-bread expectations.

And, of course, it made me think about Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and my own—possibly prejudiced and stereotypical—reactions to each of them and to the equally tragic story that played out in Sanford, Florida.

I highly recommend that you see “Fruitvale Station.” It will open your mind, and your tear ducts.