Four years have passed since 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was shot by a transit police officer at the Fruitvale BART station, while lying prostrate and handcuffed on the eastbound platform. But the incident still lingers, just as Grant's face shines from a mural in the city's downtown corridor. In Oakland, Grant's become a local folk hero. Some people consider him a martyr. The real story is a lot more complicated.

To understand the social magnitude of Oscar Grant's death, you have to know a bit about the timing — right before Obama's inauguration, right at the moment cellphones were allowing ordinary people to break news and keep officials in check — and a bit about Oakland's history of resentment toward its police force. Nationally, Grant never got the same level of media attention as Trayvon Martin or even Sean Bell, but at home his face has appeared on so many protest fliers that it's embedded in the city's political iconography. Artists have treated him as a muse; guitar balladeers have sung about him in stairwells; poets have turned the phrase "I am Oscar Grant" into a mantra and a credo. When protesters from the Occupy movement commandeered a large patch of grass outside Oakland City Hall, they rechristened it "Oscar Grant Plaza."

And now Grant is the subject of a Hollywood film, named for the place he died, Fruitvale Station, which opens this week in New York, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. Made by a young director who grew up in Oakland and has many friends in common with Grant, it's jerked a Bay Area legend into the national psyche.


Rookie filmmaker Ryan Coogler was home for Christmas break the night Grant was shot, on New Year's Eve 2008. Like everyone else, he learned about the incident in fragments. Coogler happened to be working security for a rave in San Francisco when a friend called to say the trains had shut down in Oakland. "He said someone got shot," Coogler recalls, rubbing his eyes dismally during a press junket at Berkeley's Claremont Hotel, two weeks before the film's opening. He remembers going home and watching cellphone videos of the shooting on YouTube after they'd gone viral.

Raw as they were, the videos conveyed a perfect parable of police corruption, racial inequality, and the public's new ability to document it. Grant was black and unarmed; the BART cop white. Public trust in law enforcement had already eroded after the famed Riders case of 2000, which accused four Oakland cops of unlawfully beating and planting evidence on suspects. Grant's death was the last straw; within a few days of the incident, riots erupted in downtown Oakland. Coogler witnessed the events from afar, but didn't participate. He felt embattled.

"I wanted to do something, not just about it, but something that could help keep these things from happening," the director says. "You know what I mean?"

Coogler had a friend, Ephraim Walker, who grew up in Grant's Fruitvale neighborhood and who attended law school at USC at the same time Coogler was completing the film program. Coogler had loosely pitched the Grant biopic to Walker, who cottoned to the idea but put it away until after he graduated. In 2010, Walker moved back to Oakland to apprentice with civil rights attorney John Burris, who represented Grant's family and friends in a series of lawsuits against BART. One day Walker called Coogler and asked if he was still pursuing the film; Burris needed help organizing footage of the crime scene.

The seeds of Fruitvale Station, which snagged two awards at Sundance, came from bits of scavenged video that Coogler edited into a larger narrative. He decided to compress the film into a single day, Grant's last, but include enough detail to reveal more about the slain man's character, and about the larger issues that precipitated from his death.

Before graduating from USC, Coogler sold the idea to actor-director Forest Whitaker, who was scouting for new talent at the time. Whitaker watched Coogler's portfolio of student shorts, decided the young director had chops, and agreed to executive-produce the film. He also helped Coogler secure top-notch Hollywood talent to populate it. Michael B. Jordan of The Wire stars as Grant, while indie starlet Melonie Diaz plays Grant's girlfriend, Sophina Mesa. Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer plays Grant's mother, Wanda Jackson.

Having those tent-pole names gave the film Hollywood cachet, although Coogler says he took pains to prevent it from becoming a standard tearjerker. The tough part was creating a sympathetic portrait of Grant that didn't just regurgitate the stuff of urban legend. Coogler wanted Grant's defects to come through as well; he wanted Grant to be handsome, and sweet, and likable, but also flawed enough to be believed.


The director had a daunting task ahead, given that Fruitvale Station might become the official Oscar Grant narrative — the one that locks in a lot of conceptions of who Grant really was. Coogler felt that burden, and says he tried as hard as possible to create a realistic tick-tock of Grant's last day.

To that end, the director culled events from court documents — both the criminal case against the shooter, Johannes Mehserle (who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter), and the civil suits that Grant's family and friends waged against BART — and patched them together, paying particularly close attention to the testimonials from Grant's friends and family. Burris helped connect Coogler to Grant's mother and girlfriend, with the idea that both would provide a more complex and checkered portrait of the young man than public myth allowed.

But getting to the truth was tricky, since Coogler evidently had his own motivations. He says he wanted to create a social allegory that wasn't a panegyric; it seems he also wanted Fruitvale Station to say something about cop corruption and the disparities of urban life, but package it in a way that a wider audience would accept. Meanwhile, Grant's family wanted to cement a narrative they'd spun during Mehserle's trial, at a time when the BART cop's defense lawyers were raising questions about Grant's character.

The defense tried to deflect a murder charge by portraying Grant as a career criminal who often needed to be subdued by police officers; Grant's family countered with their own stories of Grant as a family man who'd come up hard, but was trying to do better. Over the course of the trial, they created a character sketch that Coogler would ultimately replicate.

Sure, Grant was flawed, family members say. He'd been an adulterer, earned a rap sheet, held a string of jobs at fast-food joints and small grocers (in the film he works at a fish market) but had trouble keeping them. And there's no question he ran with the wrong crowd. Yet the people close to Grant also insist he had good intentions. After cheating on Mesa, he'd tried to repair the relationship, promising to find them a home in Livermore with a backyard big enough to raise pit bulls; he fought with the matriarchs of his family but also loved them fiercely. On the eve of his death, they say, Grant was a struggling parolee with a heart of gold.

That archetype shines through every scene of Fruitvale Station, which falls short of lionizing Grant, but still participates in his sanctification. After writing the script, Coogler wanted to familiarize his actors with that storyline as well. The best way to do that, he decided, was to bring them straight to the source. Whitaker secured funding to fly Jordan and Diaz out to Oakland a month before the shoot so they could hang out with Grant's friends, watch a basketball game at Oracle Arena, learn the local slang and listen to regional hip-hop. Coogler had the actors talk to their real-life counterparts to grasp speech patterns and mannerisms. He enlisted Mesa as a fashion consultant and had Diaz emulate her style — dyed scarlet hair, hoop earrings, a Monroe stud above her lip. He hired several non-actors to play Grant's friends, scored the film with music from local rap artists, and got his brother to compose the ringtone for Grant's cellphone. He shot all the BART scenes after hours on real station platforms, including the one in Fruitvale.

Although Fruitvale Station certainly has its own moral slant, Coogler structures it like a home video or documentary. He strings events together chronologically, using Grant's cellphone call log to mark the passage of time. (It's no coincidence that cellphones form a central motif in the film.) Coogler also takes creative license to fill in the narrative gaps when Grant was alone on that last day. During one of those stretches, the protagonist pulls into a gas station and hears a violent screech of tires on the street nearby. Grant turns, sees a pit bull lying on the ground in a pool of blood, and runs to chase the offending car as it races away.

Though it probably never happened, it's one of the most unsettling scenes in the movie. Grant picks up the dying dog and tries to drag it to safety — already too late. The clock ticks; the sun flickers. The streets seem quiet, though any viewer who knows that particular gas station also knows it lies in the shadow of the BART tracks, which means trains were gliding imperceptibly overhead. It's an eerie foreshadowing, a solitary moment in the life of a person about to die a very public death. And that it is an imagined moment is all the more appropriate for someone who, more and more, may himself be a work of the imagination.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
8 comments
WeThePeopleMustUnite
WeThePeopleMustUnite

I don't understand why people have such a difficult time understanding that if you look and act a part, perceptions will see you the part.  Seriously, a stranger comes uninvited in your house, your babies in your arms, your pocket book and jewelry on the table, and he/she's holding a knife, or has a crazy look, something no different that you see on mug shots every day at a post office, etc...; and tell me your going to stand there and offer coffee, invite them in with open arms?

The masses are so stupid, so easily manipulated (which is why the media/banks/politicians/Hollywood) own your asses!

Let me answer for you if you are that person and a stranger walks in your house and you happen to have a gun or knife or club in your hand, your going to beat them down, shoot first, ask questions later because if you don't act, in a split second it could be your life, your kids, your livelihood to lose.

You certainly are not going to think, oh... this complete stranger is such a sweet person, with a good heart, I know they have a criminal record, but they are here to be real swell!

B.S.

If your hand is in the cookie jar, well, guess what, people are going to think you are eating the cookies, PERIOD!

So, good or not, you wanna act like a thug, expect to get treated like a thug.  This isn't to defend cops either, but I'm pretty sure lots of cops are good people, with good hearts, and no different that you and me, and certainly not much different than the movie portrays Grant.  In actuality, my guess is that they, and you, actually take care of your families and don't have a criminal record that goes back forever (unless you call being a cop a criminal)?

I happen to be privy to some info about Grant, to be fair, I have to call it hearsay, but the sources are highly reliable.  Apparently he's avoided charges in some very serious criminal cases, that if he was charged he would end up doing very serious time.  But, he has been fairly clever, and so his criminal record is just "petty" in appearance, which has the effect, oh, he didn't kill anyone, so he is a good guy to most of you.  What is fact, despite he's avoided the major charge, he has a history of criminal trouble and has been investigated numerous times, leaving a long trail of victims (with no idea how many more unrecorded) in his wake spanning over this sweet young mans 22-years of life.  His family is somewhat notorious, proving the saying, "the apple don't fall too far from the tree.", I'm sure they are/will put his death $$ to good use, bettering their lives and community.

I wouldn't surprise me if the BART cops weren't even aware of who he was and what they were dealing with, but in the video I viewed there appeared enough that these boys/men were not complying, and I wonder, somewhat combative.  I didn't see the cops do anything without some kind of invocation FIRST by Grant.  And, to break it down simply, if you get what I am saying above, I am sure you'd do the same.  These are young, strong, street smart boys; who look and act like thugs, so if you were the cop are you seriously going to turn your back and not be "on-guard" ready for anything?

The guy who shot him, I have no clue about... maybe he panicked, maybe had had an itchy trigger finger; but if you don't give someone a reason to break you down in the first place, you will most likely avoid trouble.

1st rule, if an authority tells you to put your hands up; if you want jaw with them, fine, but put your hands up.  He starts poking you with a stick or punches you, then there is nothing to argue, we got a bad cop.

However this turned out, I don't mean to say you get what you deserve, but Grant has pushed that envelope all his life, that he's decided to become an angel after all the hurt he'd left in his previous 10-15 years of his life, unfortunately, fate decided it was too little to late.

Of all things, I agree that the black youth probably has the worse chances in life.  Don't blame that on white people, blame that on the leaders of this, YOUR, country; they are the ones who put "we the people" against each other.  It's like hating Muslims or Jews or whomever... last I checked it was a small group of individuals who give a bad name for a whole lot of others; like our government, banks, energy and oil companies make a lot of the world hate American's.

Why do you hate anyway, it's because your are too stupid to think for yourself, and let the TV/media tell you how to think.  So, the Muslims, Jews, Arab's, etc... they are your enemy?  Nope, nope, nope.  You are a puppet and the White House is pulling your strings, and laughing all the way to the bank.  Obama proves that it doesn't matter black or white, he is an uncle Tom like no other, and it is business as usual.  Don't kid yourself with little shit, things are NOT better.

I walk into a bar or workplace that changes all the time, I have no idea who is good or bad, but I want to get along, so I do get along with peoples of all kind, including criminals.  Most of us are good inside, the bad is a just a reflection of hard times and desperation which becomes a false identifier of what is in our hearts and our intentions, and I'm sure this was no different for Grant or the cop who shot him, both of which I am sure I could have cherished as friends if I got to them personally.  But like I said, you carry a toy gun and point it at a cop, don't be so surprised when you get riddled by 100 rounds.

Grants death has resulted in nothing good, as life, conditions, are no better for blacks or any people (race/religion/color, etc); and, if anything, his death has only widened the racial divide, where people hate because of a perception that was created by media and the leaders of this country for centuries.  As a politician, what better way to get away with murder than to keep "we the people" so busy hating and fighting each other that we can't see that they are screwing us all.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall... division is ruling the day, do something...

Lurkeshah
Lurkeshah

I haven't seen the film but can anyone tell me if Saint Oscar's halo is properly represented?  His giving sight to the blind? His healing of the lame?   Are his many miracles documented?

very_opinionated1
very_opinionated1

How about a movie that shows the criminal Oscar Grant?  Because that was what he IS!!! If this director lived anywhere near Oakland, he would know how dangerous the city and its people are!  So, I guess Oakland is a bunch of righteous men harassed by the police because they did nothing wrong?  Was Oscar Grant a saint? Would we have the movie (or would anyone have cared) if Oscar Grant WAS killed during the fight on BART?!!! Or, would we have blamed the police for acting to slow?  Trouble and danger followed Oscar Grant and his history showed! Whether by police bullet or gang bullet, Oscar Grant's fate was sealed!  I do not think OG deserved to die, but,  the was the life he was leading! This movie is a sham!  The director is a joke!  What's next a movie about the people hero, Osama Bin Laden,  and his murder by the evil Seals?!!! Yes, the concept of Fruitvale is just as laughable!

roundelay78
roundelay78

@very_opinionated1  

So he deserved to die because he was a criminal? The bottom line was, he wasn't IN the act of committing a crime when this incident jumped off,and there was NO reason he should have been shot in the first place,because he already unarmed and cuffed in the FIRST place. And if you bothered to read the article, the director IS from Oakland, and obviously knows more than you do about the place.

Binkconn
Binkconn

@very_opinionated1 Yes, because like Osama, Oscar was the mastermind behind the death of thousands of Americans. Great comparison!

aliasetc
aliasetc topcommenter

My thoughts exactly!

roundelay78
roundelay78

@very_opinionated1  

So he deserved to die because he was a criminal? The bottom line was, he wasn't IN the act of committing a crime when this incident jumped off,and there was NO reason he should have been shot in the first place,because he already unarmed and cuffed in the FIRST place. And if you bothered to read the article, the director IS from Oakland, and obviously knows a hell of a lot more than you do about the place.

And his fate wasn't sealed---he died because an officer made a stupid,careless mistake.---why the hell do you need to tase someone who's already cuffed face down on the ground? What the hell can they do to you in that position? Nothing! Bottom line, you have to wonder would have happened to a white boy with a similar criminal record? I don't think so! You sound like these racist idiots who think Trayvon Martin deserved to die just because he was a young black teen wearing a hoodie!  I've already seen FRUITVALE STATION, and it was actually a pretty good film---very sad ending.

roundelay78
roundelay78

@j@

@very_opinionated1  

So he deserved to die because he was a criminal? The bottom line was, he wasn't IN the act of committing a crime when this incident jumped off,and there was NO reason he should have been shot in the first place,because he already unarmed and cuffed in the FIRST place. And if you bothered to read the article, the director IS from Oakland, and obviously knows a hell of a lot more than you do about the place.

And his fate wasn't sealed---he died because an officer made a stupid,careless mistake.---why the hell do you need to tase someone who's already cuffed face down on the ground? What the hell can they do to you in that position? Nothing! Bottom line, you have to wonder would have happened to a white boy with a similar criminal record?  Hell,no,you know damn well it wouldn't! You sound like these racist idiots who think Trayvon Martin deserved to die just because he was a young black teen wearing a hoodie!  I've already seen FRUITVALE STATION, and it was actually a pretty good film---very sad ending.

 

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Powered By VOICE Places

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.
Loading...