Director Ryan Coogler chose to film in the actual locations where Oscar Grant lived and died.
SAN FRANCISCO — The Fruitvale Station stop on this city’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system, is an unexceptional place. Stark and sterile, it is familiar to commuters as well as any traveler who has taken public transportation from Oakland International Airport into town.
And yet what happened there in the first hours of an otherwise celebratory New Year’s Day 2009 — the shooting death of an unarmed reveler, Oscar Grant III, 22, by a BART officer who confused his Taser for a loaded gun — lit a fuse of anger, frustration and ultimately hope that has stretched all the way south to Hollywood.
Fruitvale Station, the just-released debut feature from 27-year-old director/writer Ryan Coogler, has already garnered critical buzz for the filmmaker and his stars, Michael B. Jordan as Grant and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as his mother, Wanda Johnson. But for Coogler and the tight-knit group behind this movie, true rewards lie beyond awards.
“One of the most powerful things on the planet is human thought, and art can inspire that,” says Coogler, a Bay Area native who was home on Christmas break from film school at the University of Southern California when Grant was killed. “My mission was to generate empathy for someone people had never met.”
Coogler sets out to do that by focusing on the last day of Grant’s life, one that was filled with dualities. He had served time in San Quentin for drug dealing, but upon being released was intent on going straight. In one telling scene, Grant is shown both pleading with a hint of menace for a second chance at a grocery store job, and helping a stranger with a fish-fry dilemma by putting his grandmother on the phone with cooking advice.
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“He was a layered guy, different when he was around different people,” says Jordan, 26, a Newark native who spent time with Grant’s East Bay family and friends for the role. “He was caught in a juggling act, trying to make everybody happy and not keeping up.”
Jordan hopes that moviegoers leave the theater “simply valuing life a little more,” he says. “Maybe they’ll ask themselves, ‘How can I be a better person?’ Will it stop injustice? No. But maybe it can make things get better.”
Coogler’s road to Fruitvale started the night of the shooting, which was captured on smartphones by BART riders and yielded exceedingly tense and tragic footage that the director chose to open the movie.
Grant and his girlfriend, with whom he had a daughter, joined friends for a trip into San Francisco to watch fireworks when an altercation with neighborhood toughs led to the confrontation with officers.
Grant was face down with his hands behind his back when he was shot by officer Johannes Mehserle, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months before being released. After the fateful shot, the victim was heard to say, “You shot me! I got a 4-year-old daughter.” He died hours later.
“When I heard, I was shocked, angry and sad, and immediately knew I wanted to make a movie about this,” Coogler says softly. “We have seen this again with Trayvon (Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman in Florida). Someone’s character instantly goes on trial in the media. They’re either a martyr and a saint, or everything they ever did was wrong. The truth is more complicated.”
Coogler’s USC short films got him an audience with Forest Whitaker and his production company, and before he knew it the modest project was greenlit and included an acting and producing assist from Spencer. “She just made everyone around her better, with her warmth, talent and smarts,” says Coogler.
Spencer was among those who made a strong impression on Grant’s mother, who had consistently rebuffed filmmakers, fearful that a project would only muddy her son’s memory.
But, Johnson says, after “praying on what I heard from Ryan and Forest, I said yes. They wanted to humanize Oscar. To show that he was important to somebody, to his mother and his girlfriend and his daughter. He was someone’s son, someone’s father.”
For Johnson, it was important to show her son struggling with life. “If you’re brown or black, it can be hard to overcome some of life’s obstacles,” she says. “By showing that Oscar was trying to do the right thing, maybe it’ll give other young men and women who are having a tough time hope that they can make it.”
Oscar Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson.(Photo: Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY)
Johnson’s brother, Cephus Johnson, who helps run the Oscar Grant Foundation — which provides crisis assistance to the families of those shot by law enforcement — says the simple aim ofFruitvale Stationis “to have you spend a day in Oscar’s shoes. It’s painful to have to re-live (that day through the film), but this is also bigger than Oscar. We hope the movie starts a conversation about profiling (minorities).”
The cast and crew shared the Johnsons’ grief during four nights of principal photography at the Fruitvale Station platform, which BART officials made available to the production.
“I don’t want to ever go up there again,” says Jordan, whose previous roles were in television series such as The Wire, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights.
“The bullet hole (in the platform) was still there when we were filming. My face was on the same floor his was. It was heavy,” he says. “I put my heart and soul into it. One day his daughter (now 9) will watch this.”
Coogler started those nights of filming with a huddle and a moment of silence. “It was emotional for everyone,” he says.
But his quest for authenticity went beyond securing the site of Grant’s shooting. The director also filmed in the hospital waiting room and operating theater where Grant was taken after the incident.
“There’s that moment where (Spencer) has to come in to ID Oscar, and while I was researching for that scene at the hospital, in walked a mother there to ID her son,” he says. “It was a creative choice to be in the real places. There was an energy there, and the actors and crew could feel it.”
Making Fruitvale Station could well stay with some production members long after the film leaves theaters. Jordan says he feels he’ll be “living with Oscar all my life.” And he calls Wanda Johnson his “other mom.”
Johnson laughs when she hears this. “You tell Michael to stay humble,” she says. “I have another son now.”