Sundance

01.22.13

‘Fruitvale Station,’ Sundance’s Hottest Film, Comes to Theaters

Fruitvale Station reenacts the days leading up to the real-life New Year’s Day 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old, by a BART police officer in Oakland, Calif. Marlow Stern on the Sundance favorite making its indie debut this week.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, BART police officers responded to a call that a group of up to 12 people said to be under the influence were involved in a brawl on a crowded incoming train from the West Oakland station. When the train arrived at the Fruitvale station, officers removed Oscar Grant, a young African-American man, and several other men from the car, and lined them up seated against a wall.

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Protesters carry signs with a picture of slain 22-year-old Oscar Grant III during a demonstration at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, Calif., Jan. 7, 2009. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Passengers aboard the stalled train captured the rest of the incident with cellphone cameras.

Grant, 22, who doesn’t appear to be resisting arrest, makes a motion to stand and is seen waving his hands in defeat. A BART officer then shoves him face-first onto the ground. A brief struggle ensues as several officers attempt to subdue a squirming Grant, his hands behind his back. Then, Johannes Mehserle, 27, a white, German-born officer hunching over Grant stands up, takes a half-step back, draws his gun, and fires a shot directly into Grant’s back. It looks like an execution.

The cellphone videos were uploaded to the Internet, where they spread like wildfire. One video, uploaded to Oakland-based KVTU Channel 2, was downloaded more than 500,000 times in the first four days.

Fruitvale Station, which made its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, attempts to recreate the day in Grant’s life prior to his death. Opening with the disturbing cellphone footage of his killing, it then flashes back to the early morning hours, as Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is confronted by his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), over his rampant infidelity while he puffs away on a blunt. The couple shares a cute young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Grant assures Sophina that he loves her “forever,” and that he won’t stray again.

Grant is a loving father to Tatiana and, despite his wandering eye, appears to care deeply for Sophina. Unfortunately, he’s just been fired from his job working the deli counter at the supermarket due to his punctuality problem and, since he’s an ex-con, feels he has no other moves besides going back to selling weed. But Grant, after remembering his time behind bars and the torment it inflicted on his mother, played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help), has a crisis of conscience, decides to throw away his bag of weed, and turn over a new leaf.

Later on, after celebrating his mother’s birthday, Sophina talks Grant into going out with her and their friends to San Francisco to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Directed by 26-year-old first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who also works at a juvenile-detention center in San Francisco, Fruitvale Station is a harrowing film that, despite its foregone conclusion, is never less than riveting. This is thanks in large part to Jordan’s performance as Oscar, transforming this blurry YouTube victim into a gregarious, dimpled, compassionate, and ultimately tragic case of a young man who seems forever stuck in his hopeless station in life. While the characterization of Oscar could have benefited from being a bit less sympathetic, since painting him as a wronged saint as opposed to a conflicted young man makes for a less challenging character, Jordan, who burst onto the screen in the superhero flick Chronicle, does a fine job carrying the entire film on his back.

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A scene from ‘Fruitvale,’ starring Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan, that premiered at Sundance 2013.

Fruitvale Station, which received rounds and rounds of applause—and quite a few tears—at its press screening, has been arguably the most buzzed-about film at this year’s Sundance, and incited a much-publicized bidding war amongst distributors. Powerhouse distributor Harvey Weinstein eventually had his Weinstein Co. acquire the film for a sum in the neighborhood of $2.5 million, so expect to be hearing more from this absorbing and haunting film during next year’s awards season.

And, after a national outcry and riots in the Oakland area, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, the officer that fired the shot that killed Grant, Johannes Mehserle, was sentenced to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced on Nov. 5, 2010, and, after receiving double credit for time already served, was released on June 13, 2011. For their part in his death, BART eventually settled with Sophina, the mother of Grant’s daughter, for $1.5 million.

Each New Year’s Day, the friends and family of the late Oscar Grant gather at the Fruitvale BART station to remember a man who died far too young, but not in vain.