Sundance Hit ’Fruitvale Station’ Examines Racial Divide
On New Year’s Day, 2009, Oscar Grant was killed by police in an altercation at the Fruitvale station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit line. Bystanders captured the incident on cell phone cameras, documenting the incident for the media and the public on YouTube links that still exist. For his first feature film, writer/director Ryan Coogler decided to dramatize the events of Grant’s life leading up to the tragic night.
"Fruitvale Station" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it was acquired by The Weinstein Company for distribution. Michael B. Jordan plays Grant as the film flashes back and forth between his time in prison and his release, where he struggled to hold work and resist both dealing and taking drugs. The film leads up to New Year’s Eve 2008 until the tragedy occurs at the BART stop.
For many audiences, this film will be the first they hear of Oscar Grant. Long before it became his role, Jordan learned about the real life events that took Grant’s life. He recalled the early days of 2009 when the Internet brought the story to light. Grant paid his dues as a working actor on East Coast shows like "The Wire" and "All My Children." The unexpected violence at a train station particularly hit home for him.
"I was living in L.A. at the time," Jordan said. "Through Facebook and YouTube and through the black community, it was a conversation that was definitely had. When I first found out, I was outraged, very upset, felt really helpless. I’m from Norton, New Jersey and I used to catch the train all the time from Newark to Manhattan, just going to auditions and whatever, growing up.
"During the holidays, the same type of thing, me and my friends going over there, going into the city to hang out, West Indian Day Parade, etc. etc. and you would see altercations with a police officer and passengers all the time. It didn’t escalate to that level but it could’ve just as easily been me. Me and Oscar are very close in age, he looks like me, it could have easily have been me."
As portrayed in the film, Oscar Grant got into his share of trouble. We see him at his worst, in prison, and not doing much better when he threatens his boss at the grocery store where he works. Octavia Spencer plays Oscar’s mother, Wanda. She appreciated the balanced portrait of Grant the film presents before the BART station incident.
"That’s what I actually loved about the film is that Ryan presented this young man warts and all," Spencer said. "We see him with his mercurial temper. We see him dealing drugs. We see him using drugs. We see him doing all of these things. I don’t feel it’s presenting him in a sanitized way. I think it’s warts and all."
The events of Dec. 31, 2008 to Jan. 1, 2009 stuck closely to documented fact. The depiction of Grant’s life prior to that night was more dramatized, but still based on actual incidents Coogler learned about, like a phone call Grant made from work for a customer.
"I went out of my way to make sure that I researched the film from the gate," Coogler said. "At first I only had access to public records documents from the trial. I had witness testimonies of people that were on the train, things that were said in court, both from the police officers and from the BART officers.
"Before we shot the film, we had meetings with BART and I told them that I wouldn’t change anything in the script, but I’ll let you guys see what we’re going to shoot, what it’s about, and they cleared it and they allowed us to use their facilities. We made creative choices in terms of making the film a film, but every single choice that I made was based off of research and based off of things that people told me about Oscar because I didn’t want to go out and invent this character out of thin air."
Family opened up
The Grant family opened up to the filmmakers and actors to ensure an accurate and sensitive portrayal of Oscar made it to the screen. Coogler drew on their feedback for his script, and Jordan and Spencer spoke with them to prepare for their own performances.
"Ryan was our key to the family because they were very guarded," Jordan said. "It happened so soon, it was very soon. The movie was only four years after the incident so that as a family, I’m pretty sure they were very closed off. I think ’The Wire’ helped. They were all fans of ’The Wire’ so it was a little easier to open up to me a little bit. They trusted him because he’s from the same neighborhood. They knew his angle. He’s a very proud Bay Area resident and they trusted him with Oscar’s legacy and his life. The family was very important."
Now in high demand after her Oscar win for "The Help," Spencer came to "Fruitvale Station" quickly following another production. She had limited time, but was able to speak with Wanda as well.
"I was actually working in Prague," Spencer said. "I agreed to do the movie on my way to Prague and I was there for four months. Ryan sent me a lot of interviews that he had done with Wanda so that I could become familiar with her because all I saw of her were little clips of her on the courthouse steps responding to different periods within the process of the trial.
"Then I wrapped that project and I had a week to really get prepared to work with Ryan so I got to spend pretty much a day or two with Wanda but she and I talked actually while I was in Prague. There was research done on, I think, everybody’s part and because of Ryan’s relationship with the family, we had access to them. It definitely made it more tenable I think."
Despite his troubles, on the night he was killed Oscar Grant was simply trying to have a fun New Year’s Eve with his friends. He took the train to avoid driving after a night of partying. It’s not to say he had solved all his problems.
"I think whenever somebody like Oscar’s life is taken away, his personality, his character is polarized," Jordan said. "Either he’s depicted as a monster or this horrible human being, or a complete saint and perfect. He’s being judged by people who don’t know him. So the best thing that me and Ryan can do, and everybody as a film, was get to know him through the people who knew him best - his daughter, his mom and people that really cared about him, people that really knew him - and create that gray area and then leave it up to everybody else to come up with their own opinions.
"I don’t feel like we guilted anybody into feeling any type of way about him. We just kind of let him be as flawed a human being as we all are. We all make mistakes and I feel like it’s in the trying. At 22 years old, I’m pretty sure we all made some mistakes and some things that we regret. He just didn’t have the opportunity to make those right and he was trying on that last day. His life unfortunately was taken away a little early."
It was important to Spencer that Wanda be seen as a unique character in her own body of work too. Though "The Help" brought Spencer to the national stage, she didn’t want to be typecast playing struggling mothers. Wanda’s story was quite different for her.
A totally different thing
"Here’s the thing," Spencer said. "I want to play a role that helps me stretch as an actor. If I’ve been there done that, because ’you played a downtrodden mom so many times,’ I was like, ’No, I haven’t played a downtrodden mom so many times. I played a woman who happened to be a mom but the character that I played in ’The Help,’ her being a mom was the reason why she went on that journey, because she wanted a better life for her kids. This is a totally different thing. She’s a mom who lost her son in a very tragic and meaningless way. By allowing his story to be told, hopefully it’s like a healing process for other moms who are in that exclusive club, but also a mending type of balm so that people can start really examining how we interact with each other as human beings."
Coogler did not go so far as to talk to the police officers involved with the shooting, however. "I did not," Coogler said. "However, I had access to things that they said in court, had access to all the public record documents that weren’t classified that they said in their accounts of that night. That was about the most access that I thought I needed, coupled with the video footage, because they were minor characters in the film."
The film may serve as the lasting memorial to Oscar Grant. Since the 2009 incident, the Fruitvale BART station itself has seen makeshift memorials to Grant as well. "It doesn’t have a memorial for Oscar there officially by BART, however across the street there’s a lot of street art for Oscar," Coogler said.
"His face is up a lot around there, in terms of graffiti and things like that. There’s a really incredible piece that’s right across the street from the BART station that has his face built into it. It’s a place that people who know, they always think about it. Going past that station, it’s on a lot of people’s minds in the Bay Area for sure."
"Fruitvale Station" opens Friday in limited release.
Watch the trailer to Fruitvale Station: