‘Fruitvale Station’ Humanizes the Pigeonholed African American Father/Child Relationship

Fruitvale Station film poster.

“I got a daughter…” groans Oscar Grant. “He just shot me…”
Lying face down, a coward’s bullet inside his back, young Oscar’s black-brown eyes water, blood spews between his purple lips, redness staining bright white teeth that had smiled with an infinite amount of mesmerizing happiness prior to Oscar’s unjustly end.
One person dominates his mind, one little female of great importance.
In Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s first independent feature film, Oscar’s final words bring forth poignant honesty that dismantles the absentee black father, that negative stereotype surrounding black culture, haunting it like a skeletal ghost refusing to die. The precious gift of fatherhood is robbed from Oscar, shot into the perilous night by a senseless white police officer. It is the kind of tragedy seen every day in America–a young black man murdered, his life thrown into a casket and immediately glossed over, swept aside for the next victim without any real emphasis behind his personal story. Media would say a black man died today, talk about surviving relatives, and–like a conveyor belt moving fast inside a methodical slaughterhouse factory–another man takes his place.

Coogler focuses on the last day of Oscar Grant’s life, specifically his relationships between his mother, Wanda, his girlfriend, Sophina and their daughter, Tatiana–a definitive, commendable highlight. To Oscar, Tatiana is everything. Media portrays the African American father as never present and always on the hunt for sowing his wild oats. Despite its setting against horrendous ill-conceived logic, however, Fruitvale Station is no Pursuit of Happyness Will/Jaden Smith film either. There is no happy ending here. Set in an urban foundation, the bond between a father and his daughter is tested by a system designed to fail black men.

Tatianna (Arianna Neal) is the apple of Oscar’s (Michael B. Jordan) eye.

Now unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the “black father not being around” stereotype. I grew up in a single-mother household, second oldest of five kids–three fathers between us. I breathed that negative stimulus of being a fatherless child all throughout my life. I admired my peers’ stick figure families with dads in them and hated whenever June came around. Eventually, I found my father, but it became even tougher to deal with the fact that I had five other siblings–all in different states. So yes, while it is tough to face difficult situations, one must move over the past and not become oppressed by it. Otherwise it becomes a pattern. 

Oscar’s biological father doesn’t appear to be around either, but the love offered from his supportive mother is tenderly passed down to his daughter and rendered with a remarkable tranquility that is difficult to turn away from. It is like a lesson has been passed down. That “I’ll do everything in my power not to be like my father” mentality is endearing and honestly portrayed. Laughter, pride and joy are magically threaded together, humanizing the reality of the American black father, showcasing his imperative role in the upbringing of a precociously bright daughter. I didn’t feel this extreme jealousy or envy while seeing him depicted as a strong, caring parent who adores and nurtures his child–that sustenance missing from my painful childhood. 

Oscar is no martyr, no betrayer. He is a catalyst. I sense hope for change, a harrowing desire for other filmmakers to portray the black man as a hero to be worshiped by his own offspring, to inspire a generation still believing the worst about his race, shooting him down just because his brown skin incites “fear.”
“Do you want her to come down here? See you like this?” Wanda asks, speaking of Tatiana, after Oscar has been jailed for the implied umpteenth time.
She moved me to tears in this scene when she abruptly admits she cannot take it, rises out of her seat, and boldly walks away. She almost breaks down, but her strength–that same tenacity flowing through Oscar’s veins–allows her to rein it all in. This solidifying moment, set just a year before Oscar’s death, defined Oscar’s passion to change, to truly make a genuine effort as a father. He knows that he cannot guide Tatiana from behind bars, that in order to be a good, responsible role model the most important rule is just to be present, and not take advantage of time.

Tomorrow is never ever promised, especially for a black man.

Coincidentally enough, black men are often penalized for killing each other–at times with no possibility for parole; but on the other hand, people of other races receive light sentences on killing black men because black men are still seen as expendable. Johannes Mehserle served eleven months out of a paltry two-year prison sentence for killing Oscar. George Zimmerman is free for shooting an armless teenager. These slap on the wrists transpire every single day. Throughout the course of America’s grisly racist history, families continue grieving lost loved ones, a mother’s mourning the most bereft because justice continues murdering her children and telling her it’s fair.

Tatiana (Arianna Neal) and her father (Michael B. Jordan).

Fruitvale Station is a film that confronts viewers with love–the love that a black man feels for his family, his friends, his girlfriend. This is not some ridiculous caricature with watermelons and fried chicken. These people eat lobster and celebrate life together. There’s no oppression or fodder. They are connected to one another through Oscar, who says “I love you” to everyone through words, laughter, and body language. When he tells his daughter stories, they are not inventive lies or tall tales, promises of a better life. He doesn’t say, “Yeah! We’re going to Disneyland tomorrow!” He may not be a wealthy man, he may be struggling a bit, but real unconditional love is what keeps him going, what sets him in a positive direction. 
After the death of a symbolic pit bull, a shining array of wisdom captures Oscar in a beguiling light. He sits on rocks and tosses a fat bag of weed into the river and doesn’t take any of his friend’s wad. Reflection has created a striking change in Oscar, an enlightened promise to become a better man, a better father, a respectful, worthy being. Before the credits roll, as he clings to life on his beeping hospital bed, viewers are left with what are possibly his concluding thoughts before death–that of Tatiana, his guiding light, his North Star in a world filled with darkness, in a world crueler than a black man selling dope in the street corners to survive and provide.

Tatiana’s (Arianna Neal) fear for Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is a disheartening premonition.

Oscar makes mistakes, but he always set out to right wrongs and often speaks on future dreams.
It is hard to breathe in a society that programs us how to think, taking away the mentality of the colored person, reshaping them only to a fit comforting representation–the joking, laughing spectacle. The moment a black man, especially as a father, is shaped into a person experiencing real struggles and hardships, the jester masquerade is over. It is impossible for lips to crack a smile. An ugly illustration of residue is left behind. A suffering mother stares at the lifeless body she isn’t allowed to hold again, barred from nearness. Even death has become another prison cell. Then there’s the daughter. She knows that her father is not going to outrace her in front of schoolmates or take her to Chucky Cheese or let her sleep between him and her mother.
Fruitvale Station ends somberly, the note quiet and gut wrenching. Coogler is not only crying out for retribution, for understanding, but for dignity and honor for those black men murdered without any sense of decency or remorse for the lives they have touched–family, friends, passing strangers.
Most gently, however, Coogler gives black fathers their due. 

  • “Armless teenager?” Trayvon Martin did in fact have arms, thank you. He used them along with his fists to beat down George Zimmerman. And you discuss the unfair “stereotype” of absentee fathers while admitting how true that perception is regarding your own father. Sterotypes are not undeserved. They exist because the subject, even only a percentage of it, continues to behave as indicated.

    I understand the appeal of this film but your examples are hardly helping your case.

  • Deleting comments?

  • Trayvon Martin was “armless?”

  • As in unarmed… renew your poetic license