On June 20, the Oakland premiere of the Oscar Grant movie, “Fruitvale Station,” drew a huge, invite-only crowd to the Grand Lake Theater (the film opens officially July 12). The presence of TV and newspaper crews and a bona fide red carpet made it an Event-with-a-capital-E, as Hollywood celebrities mingled with local social justice activists and community members. The screening’s location was fitting: the historic, Art Deco theater represents the soul of Oakland, where the film was shot; 26 year-old writer/director Ryan Coogler grew up here; and Grant, a Hayward resident, worked as a butcher at Farmer Joe’s in the Dimond District.

Grand Lake marquee

Grand Lake marquee

It’s safe to say that Oakland has a lot of emotions invested in the movie.  After Grant’s murder on New Year’s Day 2009, local residents were heavily involved in the rallies and protests demanding Grant’s killer–BART police officer Johannes Mehserle–be brought to justice, which resulted in heated confrontations with police and riot-like conditions on several occasions. But anyone hoping “Fruitvale Station” would bring a sense of closure obviously hasn’t been paying attention: unanswered questions still remain about the death-by-cop shooting of 18 year-old Alan Blueford, while the trial of George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case, garners national headlines.


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“Fruitvale Station” is about Oakland as much as it is about Oscar Grant. For local residents, seeing recognizable locations–storefronts, street signs, BART tracks—underlines a personal identification with the subject matter. But Grant’s story is also a universal one. As portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, Grant comes off as a young black male everyman, struggling with personal responsibility, fatherhood, and the demons of his past as he transitions from a wayward youth into adulthood.

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant

The film tracks the arc of Grant’s last day, hurtling inevitably toward the fateful, and fatal, episode on the Fruitvale BART platform just after midnight. Grant’s kindness to strangers and devotion to family are highlighted throughout, but we also see hints of a deep-set anger which changes his smiling countenance to a scowl in a matter of seconds.  This isn’t standard Hollywood fare; the redemption we’ve come to expect is tragically and irrevocably denied the protagonist, leaving audiences to ponder the deeper social issues the film raises.

It’s a testament to Jordan’s abilities as an actor that he makes it easy for the audience to empathize with Grant, to see the humanity under the hoodie-and-white-tee. That we know the story ends in sadness makes it even more poignant: by the time we arrive, much too quickly, on that BART platform, we want to spend more time with Oscar,  to watch him fulfill his promise to his young daughter to take her to Chuck E. Cheese.

Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station”

Shot on a bare-bones budget, “Fruitvale Station” lacks the over-the-top production values of mainstream cineplex fare – which only enhances its sense of realism. While some artistic license was involved in Coogler’s script, the movie mostly resists the urge to candy-coat Grant’s story (one scene where a newly-unemployed Grant dumps out an ounce of marijuana notwithstanding). The dialogue is suitably authentic, with plenty of bruhs exchanged between Grant and his friends. Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s mother, and Melonie Diaz, as his girlfriend, make the most of their limited screen time – an exchange between Jordan and Spencer set against a jailhouse backdrop is particularly riveting – but the movie rests on the charismatic shoulders of Jordan.

It’s a testament to Jordan’s abilities as an actor that he makes it easy for the audience to empathize with Grant, to see the humanity under the hoodie-and-white-tee.

The emotional climax comes as Jordan tragically bleeds out on the train platform—a scene immortalized in real-life YouTube videos – which is no easier to stomach when portrayed on a big screen. Afterwards, the movie loses steam, limping through its final scenes almost distractedly. Coogler misses the opportunity for a coda which could have shown the widespread reaction to the shooting, perhaps incorporating the “We Are All Oscar Grant” slogan which appeared on graffiti all over Oakland and became an national rallying cry. However, the actual ending – Grant’s daughter Tatiana asking “where’s my daddy?” – is haunting, and stays with you long after the credits roll.

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Reactions to the film—from Grant family members, actors, observers, and those involved in the legal case—ranged from optimistic to pessimistic, but all agreed it was powerful and moving.

Photojournalist Pendarvis Harshaw related that the film’s dramatic impact was heightened by the presence of Grant’s family in the theater: “It’s hard to watch when you know that his mother is seated six rows behind you… the quiet, stiff moments where you hear the sniffling over the silence, that’s tough.”

Lawyer John Burris, who represented the Grant family in their civil suit against BART, pointed out that Oscar’s story isn’t unique. In “any urban community where blacks are there with police, they’re being shot and killed routinely,” he said. “[For] every mother that’s in that story that you saw today, there’s a mother somewhere else.”

Forest Whitaker and Cephus Johnson

Forest Whitaker and Cephus Johnson

For Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson, the film was “painful” to watch, yet represented “an opportunity to share with the world who Oscar was,” leaving a different impression than the one presented at Mehserle’s trial, of Grant being someone “justifiably allowed to be killed because he had made some simple mistakes in his life.”

Johnson hopes the film “will begin to create the major dialogue we need about racial profiling, but moreso the demonization of our young black and brown men, given the appearance to all that it’s okay to kill them.”

Jordan (who is already “generating legit Oscar buzz,” according to Rolling Stone) said, “I think this [movie] changes the way we think. Honestly, that’s what me and [Coogler] want to do. We want people to leave the theater thinking about how we are as individuals, and start holding each other responsible for our actions… that’s the only way things are gonna get better.”

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"Don't tase me, bro"

“Don’t tase me, bro”

Though it’s one of the summer’s most buzzworthy cinematic releases– it won the top two awards at Sundance and was well-received at the Cannes Film Festival– “Fruitvale Station” might not have happened at all without the San Francisco Film Society. The organization lined up $200,000 in production and promotional support, referred local production crew members, and helped arrange for the cast to meet with Grant’s family before production started.

Michele Turnure-Salleo, director of SFFS’ Filmmaker360 artist support program, noted that the sum is the largest ever extended to a budding auteur, but one that seemed like a “no-brainer,” given the film’s timeliness and relevance. In describing Coogler, who reached out to her before completing his screenplay, Turnure-Salleo uses words like “authenticity” and “integrity.” The buzz around “Fruitvale Station,” she said, “is absolutely thrilling.” Besides critical acclaim, she added, “audiences are responding in really heartfelt ways.”

Turnure-Salleo hopes the movie’s success will aid the SFFS’s goal “to uplift the Bay Area film community.” The Filmmaker 360 program, she explains, is a resource for aspiring writers and directors. While acknowledging Coogler has set a high bar, especially as a first-time director, she hopes more people will take advantage of the program, which not only includes screenplay and production assistance, but also mini-grants which are disbursed throughout the year. Experience isn’t necessarily required, she said; “you just have to have a great story.”

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This week’s picks:

Late Nite Art 13: Hub Oakland. 6/27, 7-10:30pm, $35-$50, Hub Oakland Pop-Up, 1423 Broadway.

Blunt Club Oakland w/ Pep Love, Foreign Legion, and DJs Teeko, Platurn, Foundation, Max Kane, Saurus, and Pickster One. Live painting by Dumperfoo and Griffin One, hosted by Nightclubber Lang. 6/28, 9pm, $5, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave.

James Knox Birthday Celebration with the Matt Wong Trio and Terence Brewer Quartet. 6/29, 5:30-11pm, $20, the Sound Room, 2147 Broadway.

DeeCee’s Soul Shakedown 10-year Anniversary Bash. 6/29, 9pm-3am, $10, the New Parish, 579 18th St.

Deltron 3030 w/ Dan the Automator, Del the Funky Homosapien, Kid Koala. 6/30, 2pm, free, Stern Grove, Sloat @ 19th. Ave, San Francisco.

 

Oscar Grant mural by Trust Your Struggle

Oscar Grant mural by Trust Your Struggle

 

2 Responses

  1. hank chapot

    Your headline is ironic, given that Oakland recently forced thirty film related businesses out of the port and closed the film office. Cinematic profie indeed.

    Reply
  2. Eric K Arnold

    Okayyyy… This is a film which took top honors at Sundance and is getting Oscar mentions, which was shot in Oakland by an Oakland-raised director. How does that not raise Oakland’s cinematic profile? Please explain.

    Reply

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