On Friday night, Fruitvale Station, a movie about the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant, debuted in theaters. Grant was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer while face-first on the ground; he was unarmed at the time, and his death — caught on grainy cellphone video — sparked riots.
Fruitvale Station was written and directed by Ryan Coogler, a 27-year-old African-American filmmaker from Oakland, Calif.; he and Grant shared birth years and hometowns. In the film, Michael B. Jordan plays Grant in the last day of his life, going through errands and an array of personal triumphs and turmoil, the sort of day that seems particularly meaningful only when it turns out to be someone's last. Octavia Spencer plays his mother. The movie has earned rave reviews and swept the Audience and Grand Jury awards at Sundance earlier this year.
The film was also released on the same weekend that George Zimmerman was acquitted of a murder and manslaughter charge over the death Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American teen who was unarmed when Zimmerman shot and killed him. The parallels between the two cases are obvious, and in an interview with BuzzFeed about his movie earlier this week, Coogler said that these instances — and the public perception that helps create them — were a big reason why he made his film.
"I hope that people who never knew anything about Oscar, or don't know people like Oscar, or don't come in contact with young male African Americans on a personal basis [see it]," Coogler said.
"So often, those are the people that are making the policies that affect those people, those are the people that are given a badge and gun and told to protect those people," he continued. "So often those are the people that are called to juries, people whose their only contact with [African Americans] is through the media, going to see a movie. So I hope people see this film and spend time with this guy and realize they're just like us."
Coogler, beyond a shared heritage, had an even more personal connection to that case.
"I'm from the Bay, same proximity to the guy who got killed. I've been in similar circumstances, friends who look like his friends and just seeing a steady trend of young black males being murdered unjustly," he said. "And seeing the focus diverge elsewhere, instead of on the fact that human lives are being lost. It's something that I felt comes out of a lot of misconceptions and a lot of perceptions and perspectives. So I thought doing a film showing this story from an inside-out lens, as opposed to an outside-in lens, could be potentially helpful."
At a Q&A for his film at Lincoln Center, Coogler expanded on the Martin connection.
"Trayvon had love in his life. Trayvon had potential in his life. He had good things in his life... There are millions of Americans that don't see Trayvon's potential," he said. "They look at him and see him as a thug who got what he deserved. You know he was a 17-year-old boy that couldn't even vote yet, had never been arrested, never had a criminal record. My question is, why do people look at him and see that? We look at him and see something else. We look at him and see us."
Following the verdict, Jordan reacted on Twitter: "I cannot believe this is the America I live in right now." He played a character that was killed four years ago, but seemingly nothing has changed.
At a post-screening Q&A in LA later in the evening, he said, "My heart hurts so bad right now," according to New York Times contributor Claire Martin. "I wasn't going to come tonight at first after hearing aboutt the whole George Zimmerman getting acquitted, it tore me up, and that's why I think this film means so much. Because it keeps happening again and again and again. If we don't learn to treat each other better and stop judging one another just because we're different. It's not just a black and white thing, it's a people thing. I don't think it's ever gonna stop, but something's gotta change."
Coogler's movie has won raves and earned an outstanding $377,000 from just seven theaters the first two days of this weekend, including in Oakland, at a movie house just four miles from the actual Fruitvale station, where the actual shooting took place (and the climactic scene of the movie was filmed).
Suddenly, it has taken on a deeper meaning, as a depiction of this sort of tragedy and subsequent outcry that always follows. The Weinstein Company, which is distributing the movie, has almost prepared too well for this scenario, with a marketing campaign that has been built around civil rights and social justice.
After screenings, reps from the company gave out business cards that read "Commit to end social injustice in the name of Oscar Grant," while online banners have exhibited much the same sentiment. So too have murals painted in several cities.
Grant has become a martyr in the movie's marketing, even if the film itself doesn't totally depict him as a saint. He was flawed, like anyone else, but his death was nevertheless unnecessary and entirely preventable, just like that of Travyon Martin. The story is very specific, but as Coogler pointed out, there is universality in its specificity; Grant's family can be recast with any viewer's family, his internal struggles the sort of issues that everyone battles.
Movies so often use related social issues for promotional means — Weinstein created an entire movement behind Bully, selling the film as the most important of its time — but Fruitvale Station, given its timing and excellence, has a chance to be a rallying point. Or, at least, a reminder that these cases are about the law, yes, but also human lives.