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Bringing Back Oscar

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

Last summer, a month before filming began, Jordan moved up to Oakland to spend time with Grant’s friends and family: his mother, Wanda (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), his girlfriend, Sophina Mesa (newcomer Melonie Diaz), and his daughter, Tatiana (the enchanting Ariana Neal), now eight. With no existing audio or video footage of Grant apart from the shooting, the actor had to base his per- formance on the sometimes contradictory impressions of those closest to Grant. “He was a social chameleon who could adapt to pretty much any situation he was in,” Jordan says. “When he was around his best friends, he was the leader. When he was with Sophina, he was the boyfriend he was supposed to be. When he played with his daughter, he was the man he was supposed to be. The one thing that came across from everyone was that he was a people pleaser.”

In this and other ways, says Jordan, now 27, Grant reminds him of his younger self. “Sometimes, I spread myself a little too thin. Growing up, there was a little lie here, a little lie there, keep her happy, keep him happy.” He laughs. “But when you get older, you realize that those little things add up, and you can’t keep juggling.” Jordan had acting to keep him out of trouble (his first part, a small one, was on The Sopranos in 1999)—and devoted parents. “We’re a very tight unit,” he says of his family, which includes a brother and a sister. “Thank God for me that I got a chance to right my wrongs.”

“I prayed to Oscar throughout the shoot, but certainly during those scenes, just trying to get his aura, his essence: Be around me while I’m doing this. Lend me you for a little bit.” The film shows Grant on the verge of trying to do the same, which is what makes it so moving. His final day—the film’s focus—was filled with heartbreaking ironies. He had wanted to stay home, but Sophina had persuaded him to go to San Francisco to watch the fireworks. He had wanted to drive, but his mother had urged him to take BART. And, says Coogler, it was New Year’s Eve, “when people make resolutions and think about the future—Oscar was contemplating a lot of things about his future and the man he wanted to be.”

Fruitvale Station was made in just 20 days, with a tiny budget and all the obstacles that such penury implies. Probably the toughest one was convincing BART officials to let the crew film on location. Given that Grant’s shooting represents a devastating nadir in the agency’s history, they might well have said no. But after hearing Coogler’s approach—that it “was about Oscar, not about pointing the finger”—they were nothing but cooperative. “I think it helped that I’ve been in the Bay Area my whole life,” Coogler says, and that “[some of] the people who ran BART when Oscar was killed are gone now.”

Still, filming had to be done when the station was closed, from 1:15 to 5:15 a.m. It took four nights, and before each session, the cast, the crew, and BART employees gathered for a moment of silence. Coogler says that filming Grant’s death over and over was not unlike watching the cell phone footage: “It never gets easier. Each time, it takes a piece of you.”

When I ask Jordan if he’s thought about what might have been going through Grant’s mind during that final altercation with the police, he’s silent for a few moments. “Oscar was not trying to start shit,” he says finally. “He was probably thinking, ‘I’m tired, it’s been a long fucking day. I’m trying.’ He just wanted to get home. If he got locked up again, he was going to jail for a long time. But then he got pushed—physically and mentally. Things escalated very quickly.” Jordan pauses again. “Honestly,” he says, “I think Oscar was in a situation that was unavoidable. Everything kind of lined up for this to happen, unfortunately. It was a tragedy, but from that tragedy, so many blessings have come about. So many doors have opened, and so many conversations have started.”

Grant’s girlfriend has never seen the cell phone videos —“She says she never will,” Coogler says—and she has yet to see the film. But she did provide an anecdote that has become Jordan’s lasting image of Grant—a moment that didn’t make it into the film. “Sophina was going into labor with Tatiana,” the actor says. “Oscar was so happy to be a dad. He was like, It’s a girl! It’s a girl! He got streamers and all this pink stuff and decorated his entire car. That’s the kind of man he was.”

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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