‘Fruitvale Station’ brings Oscar Grant’s dramatic story to big screen

Fruitvale Station, the standout flick from Sundance Film Festival this year, reenacts the final day of Oscar Grant’s life, detailing an inciting incident that furthered ongoing civil rights battles still prevalent in the U.S. today.

Grant was a 22-year-old, unarmed black man fatally shot by a white police officer in an Oakland metro station on New Year’s Day 2009. While supporters feel he was not vindicated in court, his tale has been given new light in this upcoming movie, which was bought by the Weinstein Company for a reported $2.5 million, and will hit theaters this summer.

“It was surreal, exciting, encouraging, and fearful,” Cephus ‘Uncle Bobby’ Johnson, Grant’s uncle, tells theGrio about the film. “This movie meant to me that the humanity of Oscar, the loving spirit of Oscar, the family love for Oscar can now be seen by the world, directly addressing the demonization that was being portrayed by the defense and local mass media of Oscar. It gives the audience a deeper perception to who Oscar was, and his actions on that platform that night before his murder at the Fruitvale Bart Station.”


Onto the world stage

Premiering at Sundance in January, Fruitvale Station was awarded both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, two of the most coveted honors at the annual event. This month, it will screen at Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard, and it is set for nationwide theatrical release in July.

Already, the film has garnered positive attention from critics, who are calling it “powerful,” “incredibly moving and confident,” and “no-frills.”

On Tuesday, the studio released the first poster for the film, an illustrated image of Grant’s back as he holds hands with his daughter, and overlooks the BART station.

“Ultimately, I think it comes down to the story and the way in which it’s told,” Trevor Groth, Director of Programming for Sundance Institute observes. “Audiences at our Festival connected to and were compelled by the real-life, horrifying story of Oscar Grant and his murder at the Fruitvale subway stop.  What’s extraordinary about the film is that the writer/director Ryan Coogler makes the film about the person rather than the tragedy, which makes the ending all the more heartbreaking.”

According to Groth, the awards Fruitvale Station received are typically granted to films that are original and “dynamic,” something not always true of even big budget pictures.

He adds, “The jury members are so well versed in independent film, and they’re seeing so many high-quality films at our Festival that a film must be truly innovative and emotionally powerful to rise up and earn the Grand Jury prize.  This is absolutely apparent with Fruitvale Station, which achieved the rare feat of also winning our Audience Award.”

Drama with a touch of vérité

With newfound energy brought to Grant’s cause, Johnson feels Fruitvale Station offers a chance for audiences to learn about his nephew’s “humanity,” which he says was lost amidst court battles and media frenzy. Johnson assisted Coogler in the filmmaker’s research for the movie.

“These young black men are humans,” Johnson says. “They too have a right to life, and not all police shootings are a justifiable homicide. These young men have families that love them, and they all are not all monsters as portrayed by police defense tactics…A conversation is needed around racism.”

In many ways, Grant’s story echoes that of others like him, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and forced to pay the consequences without due process of the law.

Grant’s life ended in the early morning hours of January 1, 2009, when police officers arrived to a crowded BART Station near San Francisco to halt a fight that had broke out. Officers restrained Grant along with others on the train without searching for weapons.

In videos taken by bystanders, Grant can be seen sitting against a wall, and later holding his hands in the air as he speaks to the officer. After handcuffing Grant’s friend, an officer struck Grant, claiming he was resisting arrest, and forced him to the ground.

As Grant lies with his chest on the ground, “struggling” according to some reports, an officer pulls out a gun and shoots him in the back. He died seven hours later.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, none of the seven officers on the scene radioed to BART supervisors that a police shooting had taken place.

“I was devastated at what I was hearing about Oscar being shot,” Johnson recalls. “I did not know initially that it was the police that shot him. Once that was learned and seeing it on YouTube, it crushed me. I knew that there was much to discuss about how black people were treated by police, but to see it happen to a loved one in the way that he was murdered was like watching him being lynched.”

After a criminal trial, a court found the police officer that shot Grant guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and not guilty of both second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. He was sentenced to two years in prison after the judge removed a gun enhancement that would have added 3-10 years, and his length was additionally reduced with double credit for time previously served.

Further rioting ensued.

Grant’s family brought a civil rights lawsuit to court, which was closed when BART settled with the mother of Grant’s son for $1.5 million.

Johnson believes much needs to be done in order to make progress in the fight against police brutality and racial profiling, as Grant’s case did “nothing” to that degree.

“The civil rights legislation failed in the criminal preceding,” he remarks. “What justice means to me is exactly what it supposed to mean, that is, fair and reasonable treatment applied equally. Oscar did not receive justice because the officer was not held accountable for what he did.”

A narrative written in the stars?

Should history repeats itself, the fate of Fruitvale Station looks promising. Last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild, went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture.

Other Sundance favorites have similarly achieved top honors while also breaking new talent, and accruing sizable box office earnings. The 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine received a handful of Oscar nominations, as did 2009’s Precious. The 2004 comedy Napoleon Dynamite grossed over $44 million in the domestic box office.

“Many of the films we show that achieve the most success outside of the Festival are those that are both compelling in terms of the specific story they tell as well as how they address a larger issue,” Groth notes. “One thing I love about Fruitvale Station is how it offers a barometer reading on the state of humanity in American society today. We can all learn something from this film.”

Plus, the movie’s got star power behind it. Oscar-winners Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer produced it, and Spencer also plays a role in the movie. Other cast members include Michael B. Jordan and Chad Michael Murray.

“Michael B. Jordan unleashes a phenomenal performance that I believe will launch him into the highest stratosphere of acting talent,” says Groth.

Grant’s final Bow

For Grant’s family, the release of Fruitvale Station will be a moment for their lost child to have a voice.

Johnson hopes Grant’s legacy will now be characterized by “his humanity, his love for his mother, fiancée, daughter, and community, [and] his branding on police terrorism by the saying, ‘We are all Oscar Grant.’”


Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia