In 2009, a young man named Oscar Grant III was headed home to Oakland from New Year’s Eve partying in neighboring San Francisco. He never made it. After a fight in a subway car, the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train was stopped and officers responding to the scene detained and handcuffed several young men they believed were involved. Grant was detained. Passengers on the stopped train became angry at the police and starting taping the scene on cell phones. That footage would ultimately record Grant’s murder at the hands of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, who threatened to tase Grant for “resisting arrest” and shot him instead.
Witnesses at the scene disputed Mesherle’s account and footage of the shooting was uploaded to YouTube. In a subsequent trial, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The verdict led to both peaceful and violent protest in the Bay Area. Mehserle has been out on parole since 2011.
African-American director Ryan Coogler, roughly the same age as Grant and from the Bay Area was moved by the events to create a film, “Fruitvale Station” that tells Grant’s story. In it, Grant, played by up-and-coming actor Michael B. Jordan is portrayed as a young father who’d dabbled in drug dealing who was trying to create a better life for himself and his child.
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays Oscar’s mother, Wanda. The movie won high honors at the Sundance Film Festival which gave it the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Weinstein Pictures won the bidding war for “Fruitvale Station” and it opens this Friday. The Tom Joyner Morning Show caught up to Octavia Spencer to ask her about the movie, which she almost didn’t take.
““Fruitvale” spoke to me on so many levels. I’m not a mom, I’m an aunt and I have nephews who will be the same age as Oscar Grant and I think it’s important to have this conversation that this movie is allowing us to have while we watch the Trayvon Martin trial. It just touched me in so many ways and I wanted to be a part of it and Thank God they really wanted me. (Laughs.)”
Spencer says that at first, though, after hearing the story but without reading the script, she didn’t think she could do justice to the role.
“I almost didn’t do Fruitvale because I didn’t do my own due diligence. My agent sent me the script and all this information about Ryan (Coogler, the director of “Fruitvale”) and I watched the short film and then the video footage…and I was just sad and I was angry. And I thought anger isn’t the best scenario because of Trayvon Martin. Anger without an outlet – the results are the riots and stuff like that that we saw.
I felt like his mother, Wanda Johnson, deserved more than being portrayed as an angry Black woman and that’s what I would have been. I passed on it and I told my agent why, and he made me read the script. And I’m so glad I did. Ryan is an African-American writer/director about the same age as Oscar Grant, from the Bay Area and he could have written a very angry script. He could have written a script that was an indictment of our police, of our judicial system but what he chose to do is focus on what we all lost sight of which was that a young man died. A young man who was a person who had people who cared about him. That was what affected me and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”
“Fruitvale Station” and the Oscar Grant case, which resulted in a conviction, has parallels to the Trayvon Martin case and the George Zimmerman trial going on right now. Both involve young Black male suspects and white law enforcement officers who acted without regard to their suspect’s humanity. (Zimmerman, it should be noted, was a armed night watchman, not a legal law enforcement officer.) Although Mehsherle was convicted at trial, today he is a free man. As Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother is seeking justice in her son’s murder, so is Wanda Johnson, Oscar’s mother, who Spencer says she was careful to portray in a realistic light, although the two women differ physically.
“I understood the gravity of the situation, because not only did she allow a full film crew into her life, she watched her son’s character suffer so much while the trial was going on,” Spencer says of Johnson. “For some reason, just like with the Trayvon Martin case, they want to focus on the victim and victimize him in a whole ‘nother way. He’s put on trial and not the man who killed him.
I was aware of the loss that she suffered. But Wanda is a very unique woman. She’s poised and she’s very passionate about not letting her son be forgotten. But it’s not like she wears it as a banner. It’s hard to articulate how she affected me and being in her presence and how different we are from each other. I felt honored that she was OK with me playing her because I’m a little heavier around the middle and definitely five feet shorter than she is.”
Spencer, who is now part of Hollywood history as one of the few Black Oscar winners, (She was the Best Supporting Actress in 2012 for her role in “The Help”) says that “Fruitvale Station” is one of several movie options this weekend that include a diverse cast, something she sees as a sign of hope in a notoriously racist industry. ”
“I’m so excited about box office for the holiday weekend. We had Kevin Hart going against counter programming and Melissa [McCarthy] and Sandra Bullock doing great at the box office so there’s definitely a slot for diversity and I’m proud of that and I’m excited. And there will be a lot of options this weekend with Idris Elba (“Pacific Rim”) and with Chris Rock. (“Grown Ups 2”).
“Fruitvale Station”” opens in theaters on Friday.