Last month brought the West Coast premiere of the award-winning, critically-acclaimed Fruitvale Station, a film based on the final 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life, to the state of California. Oscar Grant, of course, was the 22-year old African American male who was needlessly gunned down by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer in Oakland, California during the early-morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. After having made its official debut at January’s annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah, it premiered overseas in Europe as part of France’s annual Cannes Film Festival. Now the film is destined for full stateside impact in the weeks ahead, hitting theaters in New York on July 12 before opening up to a national audience July 26th.
The film has already garnered a number of awards, which is quite an impressive feat considering that not only is this movie independently-produced (by Forest Whitaker), but the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, has never before directed a full-length feature film. Among the laudable awards the movie has earned thus far are the “Grand Jury Prize” and the “Audience Award” (in the dramatic film category) at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as the “Best First Film Prize” awarded to director Ryan Coogler at Cannes. An exceptionally talented group of up-and-comers were cast to star in the dramatic and sometimes difficult roles. At 26 years old, Michael B. Jordan, whose previous roles include “Vince Howard” on the NBC-hit show ‘Friday Night Lights’ and “Wallace” on HBO’s ‘The Wire’, stars in the lead-role of Oscar Grant. Academy-award winner Octavia Spencer stars as Wanda Grant, Oscar’s mother; and Melanie Diaz play’s Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend and mother of their 4-year old daughter Tatiana. Playing the less enviable roles of the BART police officers who abused and ultimately killed Oscar Grant are Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray, the latter being of “Freaky Friday” and “House of Wax” fame. The officers’ names have been changed in this film to avoid potential lawsuits the real officers involved in these incidents would undoubtedly bring forth. The cop who shoots and kills Grant is referred to in this film by a fictional name, “Officer Caruso”.
If critics are to be believed, it’s as if this film does justice for Oscar Grant the way the Courts never did. Grant was just 22 years old when, during the early morning hours of January 1, 2009, police at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station reportedly received a call alerting them of a scuffle taking place on board one of the Bay Area Rapid Transit train cars en route from San Francisco. When the train arrived, a number of men, Oscar among them, were stopped and held in police custody and were never informed as to what the reasoning behind this was. Among the officers present at the scene were Tony Pirone (who apparently hurled racial slurs at Grant), Marysol Domenci and of course, Johannes Mehserle. A number of witnesses, acutely aware of what was happening, captured every bit of the incidents with their cellphone-cameras. The footage they compiled show the police yelling at the men, who they’ve forced to sit in a line against the wall of Fruitvale train station. At one point, it appears as if Oscar is trying to rise to his feet, possibly hoping to question the police officers on why he was being held. (At this point, he may have been either impatient and/or scared after being so needlessly held and treated with suspicion by police, which is certainly understandable.) Before he can get to his feet, however, one of the officers is seen punching him, throwing him to the ground, and then kneeling on his back, before restraining Oscar’s arms in handcuffs. The bystanders, some of whom are filming, react with outrage over what is clearly far beyond the bounds of “necessary force.” Not long afterward, as Grant lay helplessly with his face to the ground, back to the air, and hands firmly restrained by the tight metal cuffs, Officer Johannes Mehserle calmly approaches him and, with his gun, shoots him in the back. Grant died just 7 hours later. Witnesses to this atrocious slaughter expressed outrage at what they and their cameras had just borne witness to and shouted at the officers; one female voice cried out, “We got you!” In a world where ordinary citizens often feel marginalized and helpless in the face of police terror, it’s as if they, by capturing the true nature of what had just occurred, are yelling to police in defiance, “You cannot hide what you have done forever! This will come back to haunt you, and we’ll make sure of that.” After Grant was dead the videos went viral and a massive wave of protests swept the streets of Oakland, resulting in the eventual arrest of Officer Johannes Mehersle a full 7 days after he’d killed Oscar Grant. Despite one of the most powerful street-led movements of the past decade, Mehserle escaped a murder conviction when he was tried a year later, despite video evidence showing that it was murder that took place. Instead he was convicted of the much less serious offense of “involuntary homicide“, a conviction based on the lame defense that he wasn’t intending to reach for his gun when he fired a bullet directly into Oscar Grant’s back. He “only” meant to shoot him with his taser, he said. This “defense” should have been deemed out of the realm of consideration to begin with. Who exactly was he purporting to protect by tasering a man who’s been lying harmlessly with his face to the ground and shackled in handcuffs?! This alone should demonstrate this guy, Mehserle, clearly has no business “protecting” anybody, and that furthermore society needs to be protected from him. In reality it’s clear he never meant to reach for his taser to begin with. Immediately after he is seen shooting Oscar in his back, the look on his face isn’t one of shock or remorse; it’s the calm, cool, collected expression of someone who just did exactly what he intended to do. If Mehserle had in fact meant to taser Oscar instead of shooting and killing him, he would almost certainly have had a reaction along the lines of, “Oh my God! What have I done?!” But instead he has the expression of a careless tyrant who places no value on life he sees as utterly dispensable. He was sentenced to just two years in a Los Angeles County jail, given a private cell away from the other prisoners. He served only one year before being released back into the community.
The director and the main cast were all present for the movie’s big premiere in Grant’s hometown of Oakland, CA where it was shown at the Grand Lake Theater on June 20. (The Hollywood premiere was two days earlier on the 18th.) Also in attendance were members of Grant’s own family, including his mother Wanda and sister-in-law Yolanda Mesa. Someone who was notably not in attendance, but who says she’s incredibly excited about all the positive feedback the movie has garnered all the same, was Tatiana Grant, Oscar’s 9-year old daughter who was just 4 at the time of his death. Aunt Mesa understandably believes it’s too soon for her to watch the movie, and says that once she’s a teenager it will be up to Tatiana if and when she’d like to see the film. “We are very fortunate our story is being told,” Mesa shared in a moment of reflection. “Because I think it happens to a lot of people nationwide.” Two other special guests present that night were the parents of Alan Blueford, who were invited at the behest of Wanda Grant. Blueford was an 18-year old African American high school senior who was needlessly shot to death in a vicious attack carried out by an Oakland police officer named Miguel Masse on May 6, 2012. Both families see a clear parallel between both of the young men’s cases, with Mrs. Grant sharing with Jeralyn Blueford that, like her son Alan, Oscar was yelling to officer after being shot, “Why did you shoot me?!”
The overall atmosphere and mood of the crowd was of general excitement and everyone seemed to be in high spirits. That was until the lights faded and the audience grew completely silent, watching as the film opened with the disturbing cell phone footage from that fateful night. After reigniting the outrage in the audience that drew this case to prominence to begin with, the reenactment officially begins during the early morning hours of December 31, 2008 – New Year’s Eve Day. It’s made clear to the audience members early on that this film is not interested in portraying Oscar as some sort of untouchable Saint. There are references to a past life marijuana dealing, allusions to him having been unfaithful to his girlfriend, and a flashback showing him being visited by his mother while in San Quentin prison. Ryan Coogler had no qualms about including these scenes, because in his view it shows that Oscar was all the more human, and for many it makes him all the more relatable. What is clear though, and what matters the most is that he is clearly trying to make changes and turn his life around. As Michael B. Jordan, who plays Oscar, puts it, “He was trying to be a better brother, a better son, a better dad, a better lover, a better person…” He tries unsuccessfully to get his old job back at a supermarket, but is greeted with animosity by his former employer. Despite this setback he refuses to take the “easy way out”, and turns down an offer to make some extra cash by selling drugs. There are also scenes which show the gentler, more fun side of his personality, including one where he’s shown playfully brushing his teeth with his daughter.
That night Oscar makes plans to go out and celebrate the new year with his male buddies. Oscar’s mother, believing it unsafe for them to be out driving that time of night, advises them to take the train. Later on, after celebrating the New Year in San Francisco, Oscar and his friends are riding the train back to Oakland when a white female he’d met earlier that day at the Super Market sees him and shouts, “Hey Oscar! How are you?”, to which he replies, “I’m good, I’m good.” However, a man he’d previously had a bad encounter with at San Quentin prison hears this conversation and recognizes Oscar. The man approaches him and the confrontation quickly devolves into a fight. At that moment a voice is heard over the intercom announcing, “Next stop, Fruitvale Station.” What happens next needs no further commentary here.
In its review of the film, IndieWire.com wrote that “at a time where human beings like Grant are murdered and then scrutinized by the media about their ‘criminal background,’ the film is important and necessary.” Ryan Coogler understands this sentiment all too well. Not only is he a Black man in America, but he’s also 26 years old – the same age Oscar Grant would be had his life not been tragically cut short. Speaking with the Grio, Coogler says that what’s at the heart of this movie is how we as people treat people who we consider as being “other” or different from ourselves. “Nobody was talking about the fact that this human being didn’t make it home to the people whose lives he mattered most,” he said. “In the media, if you look a certain way, people don’t think about that if you die. They think, ‘Oh this dude deserved it. He was on the streets thugging. He had been arrested. He doesn’t have a daughter. He just got some girl pregnant.’” One person who in fact made such an argument in Grant’s case was Michael Rains, Johannes Mehserle’s defense attorney, who had this to say about the film’s warm reception by the public: “I just hope the anger that characterized this case is gone. I hope the movie doesn’t engender that kind of anger again.” This “anger” he speaks of is obviously a reference to the massive protests that took place in the wake of his client murdering Oscar Grant and subsequently the light sentence he received, anger that was and still is completely justifiable. Coogler, however, didn’t make this film in hopes of sparking anger, but instead wants people to “think about their relationships and why we treat people certain ways, but we treat others in different ways… why some peoples’ lives matter more than others, which I think is an inherent tragedy.”
With such an amazing debut film, Coogler has the potential to be one of the greatest and thought-provoking movie directors of his young generation. He feels that a lot of his contemporaries “are stepping up to the plate and realizing we have a social responsibility not just to entertain but to make people think.” (something that today’s big-budget filmmakers are sorely lacking I might add) No matter what the future holds, one thing is for certain. Even though Grant may have appeared to Officer Mehserle to be just another nameless face, Ryan Coogler’s extraordinary film ensures that Oscar Grant will never appear nameless to this world again.
- Fruitvale, the Movie About Oscar Grant is Powerful, Haunting and Moving – Hip-Hop and Politics
- Videos Bring Out Emotion in Oscar Grant Shooting Trial – The Grio
- Video Takes Center Stage at Oscar Grant Trial – The Grio