Oscar Grant was only 22 years old when he died after being shot in the back by an Oakland transit policeman in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. The public outcry that followed was inflamed because the shooting was recorded by shocked BART-train passengers who captured it on their cellphones and immediately posted online. One of the young Bay Area residents who was outraged by what transpired on the video was an aspiring filmmaker named Ryan Coogler, also 22. In Southern California, 21-year-old actor Michael B. Jordan watched the grainy footage on Facebook and had a heavy heart. “Being somebody who was so close to my age, it was almost like a peer getting shot down,” he says. “It kind of really sat with me.”
Three years after Grant’s death, Coogler and Jordan set out to tell the story of Grant’s last 24 hours alive in Fruitvale Station. It’s not an angry film, nor does it lionize Grant and make him a saint. Grant had dealt drugs and served a prison sentence. But at the time of his death, he was trying to start over – according to those who knew him best – and become the son, boyfriend, and father that others needed him to be.
Coogler had earned the trust of Grant’s family, and interviewed everyone who crossed paths with Grant on Dec. 31, 2008. Combined with cellphone records and legal documents, he pieced together Grant’s movements and interactions to create an informed version of his final day alive. Such details were crucial – especially for Jordan, who Coogler recruited to star – because there was very little if any video of Grant himself. That is, except for the horrible video of his final moments.
Fruitvale Station premiered at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won several top prizes, was quickly picked up by The Weinstein Company, and is currently a serious contender for several year-end awards. Sundance audiences were stunned into silence by the film, which opens with the actual amateur footage of Grant’s shooting at the Fruitvale BART station. It was a decision Coogler wrestled with. “That was something that I was initially very firmly against,” he said at Sundance. “I didn’t want any real footage in the film. But you sometimes have to take a step back. Being from the Bay Area, I knew that footage like the back of my hand, but more people from around the world had no idea about this story. It made sense for them to see that footage and see what happened to Oscar, and I think it was a responsibility that we had to put that out there. From now on, everyone who sits down and sees this film, they see the truth. There’s no CGI in that, in what they did to that young man. That’s the real deal.”
The film might begin with those grainy images, but the movie takes great care to focus on much more than just what happened at the BART station. Coogler captures a young man whose life can still veer in any direction, good or bad. In the movie, Oscar weighs getting a real job against dealing drugs, works on his relationship with his daughter’s mother (Melonie Diaz), and tries to be the son his mother (Octavia Spencer) proudly raised. Coogler takes some creative license with certain scenes, and audiences are automatically inclined to empathize with Oscar because of the likable Jordan, who has fans from previous roles on The Wire and Friday Night Lights. But the end result is a textured portrayal of a flawed human being striving for a way out and a way up.
Ultimately, though, Coogler knew that he had to end his movie where it began – the BART station. “When I was writing the script, the elephant in the room was always, ‘How are we going to get these BART scenes shot?’” says Coogler.
The low-budget production’s financial shortcomings, even more than a preference for authenticity, persuaded Coogler at least to inquire about re-creating the tragic scene at the Fruitvale BART station. “For BART, this was obviously the toughest day in their history, so when we initially went to them, we didn’t think we’d be received with open arms,” says Coogler. “But they have new management now, a new police chief, and a lot of them had been affected by what happened to Oscar. Up front, we told them we weren’t going to sugarcoat anything that happened, but they were very open to extending an olive branch to the community in terms of letting us tell the story.”
BART agreed to let Coogler film for three four-hour nights at Fruitvale, on the exact spot where Grant had been killed. “It’s like being at a grave site,” says Jordan. “Even to this day, a lot of people that stop at that BART station, they don’t stand where that incident took place.”
Once they got the surprise greenlight from BART, Coogler thought they had no choice but to be as exact as possible. “There was a great deal of pressure to get the movements right, to get the feel right, to get the look right,” he says. “Because I thought the film would lose credibility and it would be a disservice if we shot that scene and people went back and looked at it and said, ‘It didn’t look like that. It didn’t happen like that.’”
The cast and crew spent two weeks rehearsing that single scene, and during the evenings before filming at the station at 1:15 a.m., they prepped all its moving parts in the parking lot across the street for four or five hours. “It was heavy,” says Jordan. “Everybody knew what was going to happen. It was game time when we went on that platform.”
Typically, the crew huddled up for a quick prayer or pep talk before every day of filming, but on those nights they circled up twice, once in the parking lot and again on the train platform. With the actual bullet mark still in the platform floor, there was no avoiding the gravity of the scene, and so many of the local crew – who’d lived through the tragedy and the protests that followed – were invested in getting the scene right.
“I was laying over the spot where Oscar actually got shot, and that’s not an easy thing to take in,” says Jordan. “I’m laying down there on the floor – Ryan’s laying there right next to me – and I just remember praying a lot to Oscar, focusing on his presence, asking him to be around me at that time because it was really… I couldn’t have done it without him. Whenever I was lost or whatever, I would just kind of talk to him.”
Most of the platform scenes were filmed over the course of two nights (with another night dedicated to the sequences on the train that led up to the police confrontation). “There was one day where we did a lot of heavy emotional stuff with Mike,” says Coogler. “We were shooting close-ups on the ground with blood, with blanks and heavy stunt work, he was taking punches from [actor] Kevin Durand, who’s huge. He probably went through that scene between probably 60 and 80 times, between rehearsals and getting up there and actually shooting.”
“I didn’t get home until like 8 o’clock in the morning, and I remember just getting to the house and taking the longest shower I’ve ever taken in my life,” says Jordan. “I just remember the hot water running over me and all the blood just kind of running down this old-school ceramic tub and washing down the drain, and it got emotional. I’ve died a lot in movies – it’s not fun at all. To take yourself emotionally through that over and over again. It’s dying, you know what I’m saying? It’s a lot. There’s something so challenging about making a person’s last moments count. You know, whatever situation it is, making it count. What would be your last words? What would be the last thoughts running through your head? That’s kind of what I wanted to show.”
The finished scene is in its own way even more powerful than the cellphone footage, if only because the audience by that moment has spent 63 minutes following Oscar, seeing his world through his eyes. For those who didn’t already know Grant’s fate, there’s a sliver of hope that that confusing opening black-and-white scene wasn’t exactly what it seemed. But the look of terror on Jordan’s face, more surprise than pain, and his heartbreaking reaction – “You shot me, bra. I got a daughter.” – crushes that hope in an instant, as do the reactions of his friends and girlfriend. It is a tragedy after all.
There’s no memorial for Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station, though there is a mural across the street and several throughout Oakland. Coogler’s movie has become his de facto memorial, reminding people of what happened, why it didn’t need to happen, and just how we might better treat complete strangers who are trying to get home to their loved ones, just like us. For Coogler, who remains close with Grant’s family, there has been no satisfying catharsis despite the accolades, no moving on. “For me, the film was very much about what happened outside of that scene, but that scene was the one that’s kind of burned in everybody’s minds,” he says. “It’s frustrating, because you’re seeing something that you wish didn’t happen. I’ve seen that kid get shot too many times. And having to put Mike through it and then watching that again and having to cross-reference it with my editors – it takes a toll. It was intense. It’s something that I’m still dealing with, to be honest.”