It’s rare when a film feels as newsworthy as Fruitvale Station does. “It’s completely topical,” says Melonie Diaz, one of its young stars, who earlier this year saw it win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “There’s a theme that’s happening right now with young men and police brutality … I think it happens all the time and sometimes we don’t even know about it, which is even scarier.”
Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station tells of the true-life tragedy surrounding Oscar Grant, who died in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009 at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, California. Unarmed and lying on the platform after a scuffle, the 22-year-old black man was shot by BART officer Johannes Mehserle. Arrested and tried, Mehserle served 11 months of a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.
Like most, Michael B Jordan – the 26-year-old star of Chronicle and The Wire who plays Grant – was left “outraged” when he heard about the incident. He recalls his own train journeys, travelling from New Jersey to New York. “Me and my friends would go to the city to hang out and you’d see altercations with police officers and passengers all the time. It didn’t escalate to that level, but it could’ve easily been me. Me and Oscar are very close in age, so it could’ve easily been me.”
Grant’s death is hardly an isolated incident, as this year’s controversial trial in Florida of George Zimmerman showed. Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch captain, was acquitted of manslaughter and second-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was also black.
But with films such as Fruitvale Station, Diaz – who plays Grant’s girlfriend Sophina – estimates that these injustices won’t be forgotten. “That’s why I think this movie is so powerful. People are going to watch it again and again and tell their friends.”
Set across the last 24 hours of Grant’s life, Fruitvale Station has been criticised by some for a whitewashed portrayal of Grant. Octavia Spencer, the Oscar-winning actress from The Help who here plays Grant’s mother Wanda, disagrees. “Ryan presented this young man warts and all. We see him with his mercurial temper, we see him dealing drugs, we see him using drugs – we see him doing all of these things. And I don’t feel it’s presenting him in a sanitised way.”
Along with Forest Whitaker, who was honoured with a Black Pearl Award last month at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival and whose company produced the film, Spencer was one of the key figures in getting Fruitvale Station made – even helping seek out financing. For her, like the others, it was essential it got made. “This is a mother who lost her son in a very tragic and meaningless way. By allowing his story to be told, hopefully it’s like a healing process for other mothers who are in that exclusive club. But also so people can start really examining how we interact with each other as human beings.”
• Fruitvale Station screens tomorrow at the Madinat Arena at 8.30pm