Brave new world?
Both Coogler and Jordan describe personal instances where they, too, were placed in a similar situation as Grant, face-to-face with police officers that indicted them with merely a look.
Jordan remembers a recent encounter when he was pulled over for speeding en route to the airport in Los Angeles, and was asked to vacate his car even though he immediately handed over identification. The 26-year-old says he was searched for 45 minutes before he was discharged.
Similarly, Coogler, also 26, says a primary reason for making this story was his own connection to the source.
“It’s not often that you see the circumstances of the way somebody lost their life,” the director remarks. “I’ve been in situations like that before in the Bay, and in other places. You’re in custody and things could go wrong.”
More telling for Coogler was the fact the incident took place after Obama’s first election, in an area of the country hoping for some sort of mythical “racial utopia.”
Instead, Grant’s death led to violence and rioting around Oakland.
It’s an example of what Coogler and his cast believe is a primary driver of racism today: misrepresentation of people of color by the media, and the insular vantage it creates within the American psyche.
“When I came up, I had Asian friends, I had white friends, I had black friends, I had Hispanic friends,” Coogler comments. “There are a lot of places that don’t have everything right there. Their only way of having contact with people of different backgrounds is through media. When those media representations are not complete or they’re one-sided, often times people in those communities will form opinions that could be damaging.”
And no neighborhood is immune to hate.
“In the Bay Area, we consider ourselves a progressive place,” he points out. “A lot of times, in urban areas, people who have a job of policing certain areas, they’re not from there. You have police officers from areas that are predominately white, then all the sudden they’re given a badge and a gun to go work in an area that’s predominately Hispanic or predominately black. And you wonder, what was their contact with black people before they had this job? They didn’t have any personal contact; it was through the news.”
Spencer agrees, and acknowledges the resemblance between Grant’s story and the Trayvon Martin murder case.
“We’ve become desensitized,” says the Academy Award-winning star of The Help. “We’ve heard the words over and over again – racism, racism – so then when it actually does mean something, it loses its impact.”
A product of American indoctrination
To counter stereotype without glorifying Grant, Coogler breaks down human façade, exploring cyclical patterns of discrimination that intellectuals like Assata Shakur and Angela Davis have described as modern slavery.
Raised in a poor neighborhood without many opportunities, Grant becomes a pawn of street life; targeted by his own people; profiled by the police; thrown in jail; put to work by the government; left to fester. As a result, he is a product of unspoken laws preventing those who got behind from getting ahead.
Yet what’s clear from the film, he chooses his path.
To that extent, enslavement cultivates in his mind. It can be hard to win if playing by the rules doesn’t lead to victory.
From Jordan’s perspective, an actor who first gained attention playing Wallace in HBO’s The Wire, freedom begins at home.
“We need more men in our kids’ lives,” says the actor. “Most of our dads are locked up. They’re not around. A lot of the women are taking care of the kids and they need help. It’s a different thing, especially for young males. It’s imperative for them to have the father figure in their life, and if they don’t have that, I think it’s more likely for certain stereotypes in certain situations to keep repeating themselves.”
He continues, “If you instill work ethic at a young age, you take that with you the rest of your life, and you apply that to find other avenues out. Not taking the easy way out…Getting an education. That’s one way to start.”
Giving justice a second chance
A new beginning was never allotted Grant, and furthermore, the police officer that killed him served less than two years in prison.
In an interview with theGrio, Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, noted that his nephew never received justice, and he hoped through Fruitvale Station audiences would find respect for his fallen kin.
Spencer says she hopes the film elicits empathy from those who many have disregarded Grant’s story in the past, and Coogler affirms her sentiment.
“For me to do justice for Oscar is to work to do things that can potentially move us forward as a society,” Coogler says. “So that these things don’t happen so frequently. So that the next person’s life is saved.”
The filmmaker, who still holds his counselor’s job at a juvenile detention center in San Francisco, says kids like Grant find themselves incarcerated because they aren’t “protected.”
In fact, Grant’s story may not differ from many young men in urban, impoverished enclaves, who lose their lives and are swept away without a movie, news report or conversation over their fate.
Coogler adds, “I hope that people think about their relationships and why we treat certain people certain ways, but we treat others in different ways…Why some people’s lives matter more than others, which I think is an inherent tragedy.”
Artistically, Fruitvale Station seeks to educate, a mission disguised by cinematic excursion, and serves as a monument for a lost soul still resounding.
Jordan calls it immortalization.
“You gotta look at Oscar’s life and celebrate it with the bigger picture,” says the actor. “That’s the justice that you get out of it. Going out and burning down our own cities isn’t the way to go. Sometimes we internalize our anger and we go out in a destructive manner, but we’re really hurting ourselves. It’s just finding a different way, a different outlet.”
“Honestly if Oscar didn’t lose his life the way he did, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking right now,” Jordan continues. “We wouldn’t be focusing on these things. That’s kind of how you have to look it. What I want people to take from this is that conversation, to be emotionally bothered by this and to want to change as a person. That’s the only way I think it’s going to eventually get better.
Fruitvale Station opens nationwide in July.
Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @courtgarcia