Fruitvale, the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, took home the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award prizes for U.S. Dramatic at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The prizes are the festival’s two highest honors.
Grant was ruthlessly killed in 2009 by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer, Johannes Mehserle, as he lay face down and unarmed on the Fruitvale subway platform in Oakland, California.
The film, masterfully directed by 26-year-old Ryan Coogler in his directorial debut, was produced by Academy-Award winner (Last King of Scotland) Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi. It stars Michael B. Jordan as Grant, and Academy-Award winner (The Help) Octavia Spencer, as his mother, Wanda Johnson.
The film’s synopsis is below:
Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who loved his friends, was generous to strangers, and had a hard time telling the truth to the mother of his beautiful daughter. He was scared and courageous and charming and raw, and as human as the community he was part of. That community paid attention to him, shouted on his behalf, and filmed him with their cell phones when BART officers, who were strong, intimidated, and acting in the way they thought they were supposed to behave around people like Oscar, shot him in cold blood at the Fruitvale subway stop on New Year’s Day in 2009.
“I got the call that night…from one of my friends that someone had just been shot at the BART station,” remembered Coogler in an interview with the San Francisco Film Society’s Filmmaker360 project. “Seeing what happened to him on the internet was just horrifying because he looked like us. It could have been any one of us there.”
See Coogler’s interview below:
The German-born Mehserle executed Grant with one shot to the back as he lay face down on the subway platform after being pulled from a train for allegedly fighting. He was unarmed. Mehserle claimed that he meant to pull his Taser, but grabbed his pistol instead. Witnesses at the Fruitvale station recorded the murder with cell phones and posted it online. With the magnitude of the racist act seeping into mainstream media, it wasn’t long before Oakland — and the nation — was on fire with riots and protests.
On Nov. 5, 2010, Judge Robert Perry threw out a gun-enhancement charge against Mehserle, who went on to serve 11 months of a 2 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, before being quietly released in 2011.
The last film to take home both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award was 2009′s Precious, starring Gabourey Sidibe. Producer Harvey Weinstein, who also produced Quentin Tarantino‘s controversial 2012 film Django Unchained, picked up Fruitvale for $2 million, which means this is just the first of many awards for the break-out film.
As previously reported by NewsOne, Ava DuVernay became the first African-American woman to win US Directing Award: Dramatic at last year’s Sundance for her extraordinary film, Middle of Nowhere. According to Coogler, we can expect more cinematic excellence from a generation of Black film-makers who take their power to influence very seriously:
“A lot of filmmakers are stepping up to the plate and realizing we have a social responsibility not just to entertain but to make people think,” said Coogler. “At the end of the day, a filmmaker’s most important tool is humanity. You want to be able to capture humanity in your stories, you want to be able to bring out humanity in your characters.”
In an emotional acceptance speech, Coogler reiterated that powerful message:
“At the end of the day, when I first started doing this project, it was about humanity, about how we treat each other, how we treat the people we love, and also how we treat the people that we don’t know,” said Coogler. “This goes back to my homes in the Bay Area, where Oscar Grant lived, breathed, loved, fought, and survived for 22 years.”
“My son was murdered! He was murdered! He was murdered!” Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, shouted outside the Los Angeles courtroom after Mehserle was sentenced in 2010.
Yes, he was, and this country is an uglier place for it. But, because of Coogler and an extraordinary cast and crew, the world will never, ever forget that he was here.