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Bringing Back Oscar
Mary Kaye Schilling | Photo: Robyn Twomey | June 21, 2013
How a still-raw Bay Area tragedy inspired the year’s most powerful film—and made Michael B. Jordan an Academy Award contender.
Michael B. Jordan was living in Los Angeles when Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a transit cop in the early morning hours of January 1, 2009. Dozens witnessed the killing on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station; millions more watched cell phone recordings of the incident that were uploaded to the Internet. “I watched the YouTube videos, and it really hit me hard,” the actor recalls. Jordan was 22 at the time—the same age as the young man dying in handcuffs on the cold concrete floor. As a kid growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Jordan would take the train to Manhattan all the time with his friends. “There were times, on holidays—you interact with passengers, you know, and things could have easily gone the other way,” he says. What happened to Grant, “that could have easily been me.”
Three and a half years later, in the middle of a July night, Jordan hauntingly re-created the very moment he had watched countless times, in the exact place where Grant had taken the fatal bullet. “It was very intense,” says the star of Fruitvale Station, Oakland writer-director Ryan Coogler’s wrenching film about Grant’s troubled life and tragic death. “I prayed to Oscar all the time, throughout the shoot, but certainly during those scenes, just trying to get his aura, his essence: Just be around me while I’m doing this. Lend me you for a little bit.”
That Fruitvale Station, which opens on July 12, is thus far the year’s most moving and essential film should give some small comfort to those who watched in horror as Grant’s slaying played out in the media, the courts, and the streets. Grant was vilified as a two-time felon—a thug. His killer, BART officer Johannes Mehserle, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served only 11 months. In many parts of the Bay Area, these perceived injustices are still deeply painful.
So far, Fruitvale Station has been exactly the salve its creators hoped it would be, collecting praise and awards on the festival circuit and $2.5 million from the Weinstein Company, which snapped up the distribution rights at Sundance. It’s a remarkably deft debut for Coogler, just 26, and a probable career-making role for Jordan, who is already generating Oscar buzz (and comparisons to a young Denzel Washington). The actor, reached by phone in L.A. after a whirlwind trip to Cannes (where Fruitvale picked up the Un Certain Regard competition’s Future award), says he took the part because it focused on Grant the man, not the martyr that some have made Grant into. It also gave him a way to channel the help- lessness he felt watching the videos of Grant’s death. “Making him as real as possible, without glamming him up—giving him his humanity back—felt like a way to hopefully open some people’s eyes, to change the way we treat people.”
Even while he was alive, Grant was polarizing—“someone you either loved or hated,” Coogler says. The director understood that his film’s success rested on having an actor who could capture that dichotomy. From the outset, he wanted Jordan, who has shown a gift for tenderizing tough guys—most poignantly as baby-faced drug dealer Wallace on the first season of The Wire, then as quarterback Vince Howard on the final two seasons of Friday Night Lights. As a veteran of shows with large ensembles, Jordan was a particularly generous team player, Coogler says. “We had a lot of nonactors on this, and he was always patient and supportive. Mike’s the kind of person who elevates the people around him.”