Fruitvale Station, the film that details the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before he was shot and killed by a BART police officer, opened in theaters across the country this past weekend after premiering in select theaters earlier this month.
The film takes place on New Year’s Eve 2008-09, the night Grant, a 22-year-old Hayward man, was shot and killed by a BART policeman in Oakland. Grant’s death and the ensuing investigation sparked protests in the Bay Area, as many felt he was targeted and eventually shot for being African American. The officer who killed Grant, Johannes Mehserle, was later convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, further enflaming racial tensions in Oakland and neighboring cities.
The day Grant was killed also happens to be the birthday of his mother, Wanda Johnson, a vocal critic of the verdict in Mehserle’s trial. After seeing the film, Johnson spoke with Metro about the film and how she appreciated the way it portrayed her son.
“When I saw it the first time at the Sundance [Film Festival], I was sitting right near the cast who acted in the movie, and they were just as nervous as I was,” Johnson said. “I cried. There was such a silence in the film, you could hear people sniffing and crying. It was very emotional.” At the end of the film, Johnson said, people hugged and tears flowed. “You went in one way and came out totally different when you left the theater.”
The cast and crew—Michael B. Jordan plays Grant, Octavia Spencer has the role of Johnson and Ryan Coogler directs—made it a priority to get to know Grant’s family prior to filming. The personal interactions led to what Johnson saw as a wonderful portrayal of her son, as if they knew him.
“They asked questions about Oscar, we shared about Oscar, his sister and his friends,” Johnson said. “I had dinner with Octavia, and Ryan came to a few of our family events.”
The film was accurate in terms of Oscar’s personality and his activities on that day, Johnson said, including the scene in which he purchased crabs for dinner and birthday cards that he and his family would give to Johnson. “He was the type to help people, whatever he could do to help you when you were down, he would do that,” she said. “The personality in the movie is him. It’s right on cue.”
A pivotal moment in the film is a conversation Grant had with his mother, when he realizes he needs to change the direction of his life. In the movie, Grant and Johnson have a conversation at San Quentin State Prison. But in real life, the conversation was over the phone, Johnson said. Regardless, the impact it had on Grant was the same.
“I talked to Oscar and said if he wanted to mess up his life, that was on him. But he had a fiancé and a daughter that needed him. I told him, when he was 18, the police were waiting for him,” Johnson said. “Once you mess up your name, you can’t get it back.” From that point on Grant tried to change the direction of his life.
“This film was intended for you to get to know who Oscar was. He may have had some struggles, but this was for you to get to know him,” Johnson said. “That night, those officers didn’t know him from you, and they shouldn’t have put their thoughts onto who they thought he was.”
Grant’s story has become especially poignant in the wake of the Trayvon Martin slaying, in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy in Sanford, Florida.
“The officer who shot my son was portrayed as a saint and instead of having Mehserle on trial, my son was on trial, and they did the same with Trayvon Martin,” said Johnson, who met with Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother. The two women talked about Martin’s case, and Johnson said she thought the justice system and some media outlets demonized Martin as they did Grant almost five years ago. Both women lamented the fact that two young men who shouldn’t have lost their lives are now dead.
“If we would just think, things would be different,” Johnson said. “Even with the Trayvon Martin thing, if Zimmerman had just thought, maybe that wouldn’t have happened to Trayvon. So, the judicial system needs to change.”
Johnson said she hopes more people will see the film and accept the message that people should think before they act.
“I am really very grateful that people will see the movie,” she said. “My prayer is that tons of people will see it and that a lot of police officers will see it so that they can think before they pull the trigger to kill someone.”