It was an all too familiar, entirely senseless American tragedy.
The date was January 1, 2009; the time, 2:15 a.m. PST, in Oakland, California. Oscar Grant—a 22-year-old black ex-con from San Francisco's Bay Area—was on his way home from celebrating New Year's with his girlfriend, Sophina, and their closest friends. They were stopped at the Fruitvale Station of the BART, or the Bay Area Rapid Transit, by police officers. Grant and a few of his boys were pulled to the side, told to sit against a wall. Grant, specifically, was told to lie on the ground, on his stomach. After the fact, the cops said he began resisting the arrest; Grant's friends said he did nothing of the sort. Whatever the case, though, Officer Johannes Mehserle, in the midst of the heated commotion, shot Grant once in the back. Mehserle, like everyone else present, was stunned at what he'd done. And it was all captured via several camera phones and mobile recording devices.
Grant died later that day. The video footage circulated to millions of viewers online. Angry citizens violently rioted throughout Oakland, prefacing a peaceful protest on January 7. In July 2010, Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years behind bars (he was released from prison after 11 months, however). And now, over four years after Grant's untimely death, there's an award-winning film about it, Fruitvale Station, that's on the verge of becoming a major awards season contender.
Fruitvale Station (opening in limited theatrical release tomorrow before expanding nationwide) is the feature film debut of writer-director Ryan Coogler, 27, an Oakland native who was one of Oscar Grant's peers at the time of his passing. A graduate of of the USC School for Cinematic Arts, Coogler felt he was the right person to humanize Grant through cinema—rather than allow parts of the media to keep painting Grant as a criminal, Coogler wanted to find out more about who Grant really was: a son, a father, a friend. Through research and many hours spent with Grant's loved ones, Coogler wrote Fruitvale Station. The result: a harrowing, deeply sad examination of someone who acknowledges his flaws, is ready to better himself and those around him, but whom we know—as is made clear by Coogler's use of the real-life camera footage from the BART—won't have the chance to change his life.
At the center of Fruitvale Station is actor Michael B. Jordan, whose scene-stealing supporting work in acclaimed projects like The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Chronicle were preparation for what's sure to be his official breakthrough—a Best Actor nomination is a definite possibility. Playing Oscar Grant during his final day alive, Jordan, 26, is a revelation. Through Grant's on-screen interactions with his mother (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), girlfriend (Melonie Diaz, who's fantastic as the loving, resilient Sophina), and daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), Jordan is charismatic and endearing; in Grant's rougher moments, like a flashback to his mom visiting him in prison, the young actor conveys a natural combustibility that's both dangerous and human. By the time Fruitvale Station reaches its unavoidable and gut-wrenchingly staged BART sequence, Jordan's Grant is tragic—you know that a conflicted but genuinely caring man is about be robbed of his shot at personal redemption, and it's profoundly upsetting.
It's also the work of two on-the-rise talents—Coogler and Jordan—for whom Fruitvale Station should turn into major, in-demand Hollywood players. The almighty Harvey Weinstein certainly thinks so, seeing that his major studio brand The Weinstein Company is distributing the film and currently strategizing its hopeful awards season omnipresence.
Complex recently sat down with Coogler and the film's two leads, Jordan and Diaz, to discuss the making of Fruitvale Station. Read on to get to know the young, gifted minds and the motivations behind their emotionally devastating and superlative film.
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Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)