In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, police responded to reports of an altercation on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train in Oakland. Not long after, 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who had been celebrating New Years Eve in San Francisco, was shot dead by police officer Johannes Mehserle while being detained along with his friends on the subway platform of the Fruitvale station. Amid Bay Area protests of police brutality and racial profiling, the event and the ensuing trial received national attention. The name Oscar Grant has joined Rodney King and Amadou Diallo as a byword for the tense relationship between law enforcement and minorities.
Shot on location in Oakland, Fruitvale Station, the feature debut of director Ryan Coogler, takes place on the last day of Grant’s life. It received rapturous reviews—and the Grand Jury Prize—at Sundance, and is set to premiere in the heart of Oscar season. The trailer, just released, strikes an appropriately ominous tone from the beginning, and is bookended by the chaotic events of that night. In between we are introduced to the key players in the story, including Octavia Spencer as his mother Wanda and Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend Sophina.
Coogler, an Oakland native, recalls hearing about the news of the incident from friends that night. “It was just horrifying,” Coogler has said of the shooting. “He looked like us; I mean that could’ve been any one of us there.” Star Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant, has echoed similar sentiments: “It’s something that gets you upset. It could’ve been me. It could’ve been my brother. It could’ve been one of my friends.”
Judging from the trailer and the early reviews, that’s the message the movie aims to get across, to humanize the victim at the center of the story. “Sometimes when you’re a victim of a shooting, you know, with a police officer involved, the media and everybody wants to take your character and pull it in a million different directions,” Jordan has said of the man he plays. “They want to pull up every traffic ticket, every class you ditched in elementary school, you know… Then you have people that are on the complete opposite spectrum that want to paint you to be this perfect saint, and that wasn’t true either.”
As for the police officer, Johannes Mehserle, who is also at the center of the story, he does not seem to figure into the movie much at all. His name—as well as the name of Anthony Pirone, one of the other officers involved in the incident—does not appear on the movie’s IMDb page; in the trailer, we just get a glimpse of the officer’s face as things spiral out of control. Mehserle, who claimed he meant to tase Grant rather than shoot him, was eventually fired and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He served one year of a two-year sentence, angering many supporters of Grant and his family.
The moments on the train platform appear to hew closely to the actual incident, which was captured on several cell phones from different angles by bystanders. Reportedly, the movie opens with some of that footage. You can watch one of those cell phone videos below, but be warned that the footage, while not graphic, is very upsetting to watch. With an opening like this, I can only imagine how powerful and unsettling the rest of the film might be.