The disturbing number of acts of police brutality recorded on cell phones within the past 20 years only becomes more disheartening based on these representing a fraction of the whole. And one of the unintended consequences here is that those who have suffered and died at the hands of the police on camera have been reduced to victims–and that people continue to dismiss these stories with or without video evidence.
Ryan Coogler’s first film seeks to give one victim of violence an opportunity to be seen as more than someone detained and shot by police. Oscar Grant III was a father, son, partner, formerly incarcerated person, and held many other identities that more fully represent him as a multifaceted human.
Based on the events surrounding Oscar Grant’s 2009 murder, this film follows the final hours of his life.
As New Year’s Eve 2008 approaches, Oscar Grant III hopes for new beginnings and a better year ahead. He will be celebrating with his long-time girlfriend Sophina despite ongoing relationship trouble after she caught him with another woman. Still, Oscar is committed to Sophina and their daughter, Tatiana, vowing to find a way to support his family without selling drugs.
A devoted father, Oscar loves spending time with his daughter and is always goofing around with her or sneaking her a treat after Mom said no. Close with his own mother despite past fights about his incarceration, Oscar is dedicating much of the day to gathering the food for her birthday celebrations that night.
When it comes to turning his life around, Oscar has quite a hill to climb. Having recently lost his job at the grocery after turning up late for shifts, Oscar hasn’t quite broken the news to anyone in his family yet. Despite no longer being employed at the store, Oscar takes the time to help a white woman with major regrets about promising her boyfriend a fish fry that evening. He goes so far as to help the woman, Katie, by calling his grandmother for advice.
As Oscar prepares for an evening in with the family and a night out with Sophina, he regretfully remembers some of his past decisions. After watching a friendly stray dog die when hit by a careless driver, Oscar shows compassion to the animal–and, chillingly, is marked with its blood.
After enjoying the family dinner for his mother, Oscar heads to San Francisco with Sophina to watch the fireworks. The group of friends they meet at the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station end up missing the fireworks at midnight, but an impromptu countdown and celebration breaks out on the train anyway.
It’s during the ride home that the events leading to Oscar’s death begin to unravel. When Katie spots him on the train and offers a friendly hello, a gang member notices Oscar too and begins fighting with him. Though the fight has dispersed before the train arrives at the next stop, the transit police are waiting and demand those involved exit the train.
When Oscar and his friends are detained, he and several others in the vicinity begin filming the events with their phones. It’s not a spoiler to say Oscar Grant’s life ends when an officer shoots him (later claiming he thought the weapon was a taser), but it’s no less heartbreaking.
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
Watching this film after seeing real footage of so many murders of Black people at the hands of police doesn’t make it any easier; in fact, it’s even more difficult in some ways. In part, this is because so little has changed since Oscar Grant’s murder in 2009. However, I won’t shortchange the power of this film here–it tells a story that we virtually never see in the ways we witness and discuss these murders.
Oscar Grant doesn’t get the saint treatment; he was a human who made mistakes, had bad days, and regretted some of his choices. But the focus here is on his relationships and, therefore, the impact of his life and death on his family and community. Oscar’s role as a father grounds the film and offers the most heartbreaking contrast to his death; it’s difficult to see him so joyful, energetic, and full of life, especially in light of his unjust, violent, and frightening death. Hauntingly, the last lines of the film are Tatiana’s “Where’s daddy?”–a question that hangs in the air.
In terms of plot, not a lot really happens here, and that’s the point. The vast majority of Oscar’s day is rather ordinary, with little indication that it will end abruptly and tragically in the early hours of January 1, 2009. This chillingly implies that the life of many Black men could very suddenly end on any given day as a result of just one brief interaction.
Additionally, Coogler highlights the power of holding police accountable through cell phone video. This is a double-edged sword, as recordings of Black people dying has taken a damn long time to create awareness, and the footage certainly hasn’t changed the outcome of these interactions with police.