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Bringing Back Oscar

Mary Kaye Schilling | June 21, 2013 | Story Politics

Michael B. Jordan was living in Los Angeles when Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a transit cop in the early morning hours of January 1, 2009. Dozens witnessed the killing on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station; millions more watched cell phone recordings of the incident that were uploaded to the Internet. “I watched the YouTube videos, and it really hit me hard,” the actor recalls. Jordan was 22 at the time—the same age as the young man dying in handcuffs on the cold concrete floor. As a kid growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Jordan would take the train to Manhattan all the time with his friends. “There were times, on holidays—you interact with passengers, you know, and things could have easily gone the other way,” he says. What happened to Grant, “that could have easily been me.”

Three and a half years later, in the middle of a July night, Jordan hauntingly re-created the very moment he had watched countless times, in the exact place where Grant had taken the fatal bullet. “It was very intense,” says the star of Fruitvale Station, Oakland writer-director Ryan Coogler’s wrenching film about Grant’s troubled life and tragic death. “I prayed to Oscar all the time, throughout the shoot, but certainly during those scenes, just trying to get his aura, his essence: Just be around me while I’m doing this. Lend me you for a little bit.”

That Fruitvale Station, which opens on July 12, is thus far the year’s most moving and essential film should give some small comfort to those who watched in horror as Grant’s slaying played out in the media, the courts, and the streets. Grant was vilified as a two-time felon—a thug. His killer, BART officer Johannes Mehserle, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served only 11 months. In many parts of the Bay Area, these perceived injustices are still deeply painful.

So far, Fruitvale Station has been exactly the salve its creators hoped it would be, collecting praise and awards on the festival circuit and $2.5 million from the Weinstein Company, which snapped up the distribution rights at Sundance. It’s a remarkably deft debut for Coogler, just 26, and a probable career-making role for Jordan, who is already generating Oscar buzz (and comparisons to a young Denzel Washington). The actor, reached by phone in L.A. after a whirlwind trip to Cannes (where Fruitvale picked up the Un Certain Regard competition’s Future award), says he took the part because it focused on Grant the man, not the martyr that some have made Grant into. It also gave him a way to channel the help- lessness he felt watching the videos of Grant’s death. “Making him as real as possible, without glamming him up—giving him his humanity back—felt like a way to hopefully open some people’s eyes, to change the way we treat people.”

Even while he was alive, Grant was polarizing—“someone you either loved or hated,” Coogler says. The director understood that his film’s success rested on having an actor who could capture that dichotomy. From the outset, he wanted Jordan, who has shown a gift for tenderizing tough guys—most poignantly as baby-faced drug dealer Wallace on the first season of The Wire, then as quarterback Vince Howard on the final two seasons of Friday Night Lights. As a veteran of shows with large ensembles, Jordan was a particularly generous team player, Coogler says. “We had a lot of nonactors on this, and he was always patient and supportive. Mike’s the kind of person who elevates the people around him.”

Page two: A day of heartbreaking ironies

Last summer, a month before filming began, Jordan moved up to Oakland to spend time with Grant’s friends and family: his mother, Wanda (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), his girlfriend, Sophina Mesa (newcomer Melonie Diaz), and his daughter, Tatiana (the enchanting Ariana Neal), now eight. With no existing audio or video footage of Grant apart from the shooting, the actor had to base his per- formance on the sometimes contradictory impressions of those closest to Grant. “He was a social chameleon who could adapt to pretty much any situation he was in,” Jordan says. “When he was around his best friends, he was the leader. When he was with Sophina, he was the boyfriend he was supposed to be. When he played with his daughter, he was the man he was supposed to be. The one thing that came across from everyone was that he was a people pleaser.”

In this and other ways, says Jordan, now 27, Grant reminds him of his younger self. “Sometimes, I spread myself a little too thin. Growing up, there was a little lie here, a little lie there, keep her happy, keep him happy.” He laughs. “But when you get older, you realize that those little things add up, and you can’t keep juggling.” Jordan had acting to keep him out of trouble (his first part, a small one, was on The Sopranos in 1999)—and devoted parents. “We’re a very tight unit,” he says of his family, which includes a brother and a sister. “Thank God for me that I got a chance to right my wrongs.”

“I prayed to Oscar throughout the shoot, but certainly during those scenes, just trying to get his aura, his essence: Be around me while I’m doing this. Lend me you for a little bit.” The film shows Grant on the verge of trying to do the same, which is what makes it so moving. His final day—the film’s focus—was filled with heartbreaking ironies. He had wanted to stay home, but Sophina had persuaded him to go to San Francisco to watch the fireworks. He had wanted to drive, but his mother had urged him to take BART. And, says Coogler, it was New Year’s Eve, “when people make resolutions and think about the future—Oscar was contemplating a lot of things about his future and the man he wanted to be.”

Fruitvale Station was made in just 20 days, with a tiny budget and all the obstacles that such penury implies. Probably the toughest one was convincing BART officials to let the crew film on location. Given that Grant’s shooting represents a devastating nadir in the agency’s history, they might well have said no. But after hearing Coogler’s approach—that it “was about Oscar, not about pointing the finger”—they were nothing but cooperative. “I think it helped that I’ve been in the Bay Area my whole life,” Coogler says, and that “[some of] the people who ran BART when Oscar was killed are gone now.”

Still, filming had to be done when the station was closed, from 1:15 to 5:15 a.m. It took four nights, and before each session, the cast, the crew, and BART employees gathered for a moment of silence. Coogler says that filming Grant’s death over and over was not unlike watching the cell phone footage: “It never gets easier. Each time, it takes a piece of you.”

When I ask Jordan if he’s thought about what might have been going through Grant’s mind during that final altercation with the police, he’s silent for a few moments. “Oscar was not trying to start shit,” he says finally. “He was probably thinking, ‘I’m tired, it’s been a long fucking day. I’m trying.’ He just wanted to get home. If he got locked up again, he was going to jail for a long time. But then he got pushed—physically and mentally. Things escalated very quickly.” Jordan pauses again. “Honestly,” he says, “I think Oscar was in a situation that was unavoidable. Everything kind of lined up for this to happen, unfortunately. It was a tragedy, but from that tragedy, so many blessings have come about. So many doors have opened, and so many conversations have started.”

Grant’s girlfriend has never seen the cell phone videos —“She says she never will,” Coogler says—and she has yet to see the film. But she did provide an anecdote that has become Jordan’s lasting image of Grant—a moment that didn’t make it into the film. “Sophina was going into labor with Tatiana,” the actor says. “Oscar was so happy to be a dad. He was like, It’s a girl! It’s a girl! He got streamers and all this pink stuff and decorated his entire car. That’s the kind of man he was.”

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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