The Emotional Journey to “Fruitvale Station”

How Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan and first time director Ryan Coogler brought the harrowing real-life story of Oscar Grant to the screen

The indie drama “Fruitvale Station” isn’t about a cause, a movement, a policy or an agenda, but it is about change, both for those who see it and for those who made the film.

Written and directed by first-time helmer Ryan Coogler, “Fruitvale Station” dramatizes the real-life 2009 story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American resident of Oakland, California, a parolee released after a pair of brief stints in state prison for assorted felonies.

After celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends and the mother of his child, Grant was returning home on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train where a fight broke out, and as a result Grant was detained at Fruitvale Station by BART officers and in a subsequent altercation, an officer intending to taser Grant fatally shot and killed him.

Witness reports and cell phone video of the incident suggested that, even if Grant’s death was accidental, the officers’ response had been out of proportion to the circumstances.  Controversy and public outrage ensued – including protests and rioting – over police brutality in the region.

“I discovered the story the same way as everybody else in the Bay Area,” says Coogler, then an Oakland native and the same age as Grant. “I happened to be home when Oscar was shot, and I found out about it through word of mouth first because they shut down the BART station. People were saying, 'This boy got shot in Fruitvale.' And then the next day, it was all over the news.

"Everybody in the Bay area was deeply affected by it. People got their feelings out through different ways and picked sides. It became very political, very fast. In that process, I saw people ignoring the fact that this guy was a human being, and he didn't make it home to the people who he mattered to. That got completely ignored…And for me, that happens so often: people like Oscar – people like myself – aren't looked at as full human beings. And that's why I wanted to tell this story.”

Coogler’s film follows Grant in his final days, creating a sympathetic portrait of a young man struggling to put his troubled past behind him but deeply loved by his mother, his girlfriend and their then-four-year-old-daughter.

The movie quickly began collecting significant accolades at high-profile festivals – including Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the Sundance Film Festival and Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie’s leads Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz have emerged as breakout stars, and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer is already being shortlisted for another bid for Oscar gold.

Spencer was almost the one that got away. After her heralded performance in 2011’s “The Help,” the actress was collecting trophies on the awards circuit when Coogler’s agent suggested that she might be perfect for role of Grant’s mother Wanda.

“We needed somebody great,” he says. “She's somebody who's very important in the film. She represents Oscar's past. This is the person who holds him accountable, and she's the one who's most impacted by what happens. And it's such an important role for me because she speaks for so many moms that go through that.”

Coogler assumed landing Spencer would be an impossibility. “I'm like, 'No, man – she just won an Oscar. Are you crazy? I'm about to be shooting this movie in a month at my grandma's house.’”

He was almost right. On a tight schedule due to her skyrocketing career, Spencer bypassed reading the script and instead learned about Grant’s story through a documentary account, which infuriated her. “I turned it down initially because of what I saw, and I said, 'You know, all I'm going to bring to this is anger, and anger is not the right emotion that this story needs at this time,’” recalls Spencer, whose agent urged her to read the script nevertheless.

It swayed her – and offered an unexpected surprise when she learned Coogler was a black filmmaker. “I was like, ‘Oh my God - I'm so enlightened right now because I assumed that he was a young Jewish guy,” she chuckles, “because he took such an interesting and positive way to tell the story. We know the outcome, but he could have come from a place of anger and chose not to. What he told and what he was able to do is restore some of that humanity that we never got to see with Oscar.”

Coogler happily conceded to Spencer’s one caveat – she didn’t want to play “old” (the actress has frequently been cast in roles older that her 41 years). This suited Coogler's vision perfectly. “When I met Wanda I was taken aback by her youth – like, ‘Is that you?’” he says. “I realized this is a young woman who had to go through the most intense pain a human being can experience. And that's how these moms are: they're burying their kids out here that young. I wanted to embrace Octavia's youth on this role."

Spencer became passionate about the project – she came aboard as a producer after early financing fell apart, securing additional funds and luring additional name actors – including Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray and Ahna O'Reilly – to take on supporting roles. “That was how much she rolled up her sleeves,” says Coogler, who saw that her participation in the film was igniting similar fervor among the cast and crew. “When she acted, she stepped everybody's game up, everybody from the supporting cast to the technicians to everybody around. It's like a jet pack hooked up to something.”

Leading man Jordan was coming off of buzz-building TV stints on “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” as well as the feature film “Chronicle,” and was looking for a challenging project that would put his name first on the call sheet – but even as he fulfilled his ambition he realized just how daunting a task he’d accepted in playing a real person. “I'm thinking, 'Okay. His mom's going to have to see this. One day his daughter is going to watch this movie. Everybody in his family's going to have to see this project,'” says Jordan. “So it just added pressure.”

Jordan turned to those closest to Grant for help in realizing who the young man was at the core. “I relied so much on talking to his friends and getting whatever information I could from the family and the people that knew him the best,” says the actor.

One of the most difficult days for the actors was shooting the scene in which Grant is killed, in the same spot in the actual train station where his real death occurred. “Going through those emotions as somebody's about to die, it's pretty scary, especially being shot right over the brick where he was actually shot,” explains Jordan, “The bullet hole is still there in the ground. Going through those moments and knowing he was laying right there where I was at – I definitely prayed a little and talked a lot to him during that time.”

“It's changed me in a way in that it's it's not just making a movie,” adds Jordan. “Being part of a bigger picture, of a movement, something that's going to hopefully spark conversations and change within people and how we treat one another. It happens way too often. Is it ever going to stop? No, probably not, but if we can have people start questioning themselves and how they can be better people and how not to be so quick to judge. I think I was part of something special. And I'm kind of living with Oscar now.”

Spencer agrees the experience was transformative. “I wanted to do this film for my nephews – because I'm not a mom, but I'm an aunt. And I know that if I feel this way as an aunt when my nephews – not my nieces, only with my nephews – leave to go out and hang out with their friends: that moment of panic that you never articulated. I did it because I don't think any mother or any aunt or any sister or any woman of color should have to go through that just because their loved one leaves the house for a moment.”

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