Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things

Fruitvale, the movie

The movie Fruitvale Station finally opened in Vancouver. Since I have a slight connection to the story, I had to check it out.

About the film, as quasi-documentary

It’s always surreal to see places you know in the movies. Even more so when it’s a place like Fruitvale, which is not the kind of place that location scouts would ever choose for a film. I visited the Fruitvale area a few times, mostly when a particular friend threw parties, and I know that part of the East Bay decently well. For the scenes in the BART, I could almost smell the train - Bay Area people know what I’m talking about, a sour bouquet of cleansers and bodily fluids. So of course it’s visually accurate, since they seem to have shot it all on real locations.

Point of irritation: why do they keep saying “Frisco”? Every San Franciscan I know loathes that nickname, and consider it something only tourists use. The director is from Oakland though, so maybe this is something black people or East Bay people do say. Or he thought, for a widely released film, he needed to use a less inscrutable nickname than “The City”.

As for the actual shooting in the BART, I flipped out when I saw a short Latina cop on the scene. She seemed very similar to the cop I interacted with. Somehow I didn’t expect that. In the movie, I think she’s called “Officer Salazar”, played by Alejandra Nolasco. I just found out the real life equivalent was Marysol Domenici. Funny how I never checked up on that. I guess I assumed she was just not a big part of the story.

The aftermath of the incident is something I did witness so I can speak to how accurate that was.

In the movie, there is a line of cops and police tape barring the entrance, immediately after Grant is shot. This explains why Grant’s fiancée, Sophina Mesa, waiting at the BART entrance, is unable to go upstairs; she is distraught, but restrained by police. In a movie cliché scene she chases after the ambulance as the doors slam shut.

This is my experience, as I remember it – caveat, this is five years later, though I do have notes that I wrote just a few days after. The cops did not secure the area so quickly; I walked up to the empty platform with another person, and nobody stopped me. Then a small female Latina cop, presumably Officer Domenici, waved us off. We waited outside at the bus stop underneath the BART, on the west side, with a crowd of other inconvenienced people. The person I later learned to be Oscar Grant was wheeled out on a stretcher and into an ambulance, but I don’t recall any friends or relatives making a loud public scene. So I thought maybe in real life, she’d left the scene earlier, but according to her testimony, she was there. I assume whatever her reaction, it wasn’t quite as “Hollywood”, or maybe she was so well restrained by the cops I never noticed. I wish I could find transcripts of this, but my Google-fu is failing me, or they just were never released.

About the film, as a film

I’m not sure what to say. I feel like I should have something to say about mediated reality, but I don’t. I didn’t know any of these people. It seems way more realistic than the average based-on-a-true-story movie. But in a way, the story was already mediated for the world by smartphone video and surveillance cameras. So the narrative of the film just exists in all the private moments that were not already captured.

The film has a veneer of realism, but for every gap in the documentary record it seems to be trying to make us like him. Oscar Grant never makes any bad choices (or, those choices are all in the past, and he’s turning over a new leaf). He’s bursting with love for his family, which makes us apt to forgive everything. In the film, despite needing money, he pours his personal stash of marijuana into the bay, rather than sell it. This is just one of the new beginnings the film suggests that Grant was making this day - his relationship, and even potentially changing careers.

Really, I think I am able to have sympathy for a guy who gets shot by the police, without all that pandering. The film probably underestimates a 2013 audience, given that we are all now students of The Wire and Breaking Bad.

Still, I think the film is worth seeing, because even with the above flaws, it presents the life of a guy from a less privileged situation, three-dimensionally. When they make these kinds of movies, they usually want the black people to be props in the story of the redemption of some white person. Oscar Grant is a little bit idealized in this movie but he’s also a recognizably complete person.

That said, there’s also a character inserted into the story, solely for a white audience to project themselves onto. Because otherwise, there’d be no real sympathetic white characters at all. Frankly I would have preferred it that way. The sad reality of race in America, even in the liberal Bay Area, is that white people and black people have almost no interactions. Outside of public transit and the police.