Being a police officer must be a pretty crappy job. Not only would you have to deal with horrible people and dangerous situations on a regular basis, but you’d probably also be disliked by a substantial portion of the population. The idea of the corrupt cop is a popular one in movies and on television, but it certainly has a basis in real life. If it seems that there is a higher incidence of police misconduct now than in the past, that may well be a direct result of a much greater percentage of the population carrying around cameras and the ease with which pictures and videos can be shared and re-shared. An ordinary traffic stop in a crowded area can yield more footage than the Kennedy assassination, and if an officer gets out of line, it’s no longer a matter of whose testimony is more believable.
Hopefully this “always being watched” mindset will benefit all of us by keeping the police honest and in turn improving the public opinion of them, or at the very least by getting the bad ones off the street. But in order for this to work, bad things have to happen to people, and Oscar Grant (portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) was one of those people. On one hand, he wasn’t always the most stand-up guy: he’d sold drugs and gone to jail; he’d cheated on his girlfriend; he’d gotten fired for repeatedly failing to show up for work on time. But on the other hand, he was trying to get better: he’d stopped selling drugs; he’d stopped cheating on his girlfriend; he loved his daughter very much and took a very active role in raising her. And he certainly didn’t deserve the treatment he received from transit police over-responding to an incident on the metro.
This is a powerful film enhanced by its great performances. Jordan is a key part of this, but so too is Melonie Diaz (as his girlfriend), Octavia Spencer (as Oscar’s mother), and Ariana Neal (his daughter). The film is based on a true story, although it’s not always clear how far they stray from what really happened. At times they paint what feels like an excessively flowery picture of racial harmony and civil behavior, to the extent that a drug deal gone wrong feels like it could have ended with the buyer and seller hugging it out. But this is done so well and provides such a stark contrast to the darker elements of the movie that I’m happy to believe that’s the way things really happened.