By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM

Powerful ‘Fruitvale’ at Sundance Film Festival reopens wounds

L-R: Charmine Jones (Oscar Grant’s aunt) Filmmaker Ryan Coogler, Wanda Johnson (Grant’s mother) and Cephus Johnson (Grant’s uncle) after Sundance Film Festival premiere of Fruitvale. Photo: Charlene Muhammad

( – PARK CITY, Utah – Journalists are supposed to be go-getters. We jump at firsthand opportunities. So why did I resist when Oscar Grant’s family invited me to the Sundance Film Festival premier of “Fruitvale,” Ryan Coogler’s debut film about Grant’s young life?

“He’s a humble, warm-spirited young Black man from Oakland. And Michael B. Jordan is playing Oscar and Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker is one of the producers,” Beatrice X, Grant’s aunt, a Muslim activist, encouraged me.


I initially declined, saying the family would want the tender moment in private and I’d call for reactions later. But that was an excuse. I was shying away from what was clearly a privilege and a next step in covering the Oscar Grant story.

He was shot to death while subdued and lying on his stomach at the Fruitvale stop of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system early New Year’s Day 2009.    

It’s about Oscar Grant. It’s about his family, grieving families. It’s about the movie and what it means to the Oscar Grant Justice Movement. It’s about the story and informing our readers. It’s not about me. Right? It’s never supposed to be about me!

Not until the very moment I sat in the Marc Theater in Park City, Utah on January 19, as the opening scene began, did I realize why I resisted. While my mind called me to all the training I’ve received as a writer for The Final Call, my heart brought me face to face with my true, raw emotions surrounding Oscar Grant’s death. It was PAINFUL.

Everything I knew came rushing up: How Wanda Johnson, his mother, lamented that she encouraged him to take the BART and how people assured her it wasn’t her fault; Grant’s display of leadership on the station platform in the moments before he died; courtroom antics of defense attorneys who portrayed his killer as a saint and Oscar Grant and his friends as thugs; sitting among or near his family each day as they cried during testimony, especially as the coroner detailed how he actually died; gathering with them for prayer and their attorney’s update in a quiet space in a courthouse hallway; and Ms. Johnson’s declaration after the verdict: “My son was murdered!”

In the theater, the tears welled up and my chest got heavier as I tried to push back my feelings and view the movie through my reporter’s lens. “Am I wet? Am I crying!?” It was too late. My hands wrangled profusely as I tried to regain composure, especially because Grant’s family was seated to my immediate right.

“It’s too soon. It’s still too soon,” Sis. Beatrice whispered. It was all surreal, knowing for certain what words came next, like Grant telling Johannes Mehserle, “You shot me,” versus one predicting the next scene. We found ourselves repeating those words on screen with Grant and cringing before others would come.

I couldn’t stop crying. It was 12 degrees outside yet I was burning up. Before I could catch myself, I was sniffling and sobbing loudly. In an instant, everyone had disappeared except me, the screen and the feelings I thought I had hidden so well.

Embarrassed and pained, I reconciled that all of this was occurring in the very first minute or two of the movie! That pain increased as I continued to watch.

Coogler paints a picture of what’s too often missing in news coverage of such tragedies, the human element behind the person in photos and on front page stories.

Coogler aptly captures the essence of a struggling yet hopeful and surviving young Black male, recognizing Grant could have easily been him.

Jordan becomes Oscar Grant the loving son and brother, the doting father, the tender mate, the loyal friend, and the warrior. He also becomes a young hustler, striving to make ends meet, an ex-felon, who attempts to put his past behind him, a Good Samaritan in his own right.

“Being a person of color and an actor, to be 25-26, there’s a certain sense of responsibility. I have my own opinions and sometimes as an actor you’re not allowed to express that openly without being crucified and held to it … It was our way of expressing ourselves through our work,” Jordan replied when I asked how the film had impacted him.

I personally struggled through the movie because it made Oscar Grant more than the subject of a news story to me. I realize now how I always sympathized with his family. I always felt their pain and prayed for their eventual peace of heart but I was doing so on the fringe, as a reporter. I kept a safe distance.

But in that dark theater my own feelings confronted me and I came more fully to feel and know and further believe, “I am Oscar Grant!”

Yet my pain over the senseless killing of this hopeful young, Black man, their son, my son, our son, could never compare to what his own mother and family felt as they watched Michael B. Jordan bring their beloved to life on the big screen.

“It was very hard to go through. Some of the scenes were difficult to watch and I know that’s Hollywood but I believe that it’s getting a good message across to different walks of life,” Ms. Johnson told me in a very quiet voice.

“As a mother, you want to see all the good attributes of your child. You want to see all those displayed. You really don’t want to see the things that can make a parent disappointed,” she said, such as the profanity she said Grant never used in front of her.

However, she understands movie making and Coogler’s efforts, she said. “In the light he played Oscar in, he made him come alive to people, his struggles and things of that nature. I was pleased with that,” Ms. Johnson said.

“Many people are going to go see the movie and many will have different opinions, some good and some bad. But as long as I know the truth concerning my son, I just have to keep going with that,” she added.

“The response is humbling,” Coogler told me repeatedly as we walked away from the theatre. The film was the most important thing he’s ever done and has a very high place with him.

“I knew I wanted to do something when I saw Oscar get murdered, you know what I mean? I didn’t know what that was but it was the same frustration that everybody had, the same thing that Cephus and his family had. But I was able to get it out through filmmaking,” he added before embracing Ms. Johnson.

“It was like reliving the experience,” said Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, Grant’s uncle. “It was not only painful, it was very traumatizing and in many ways, I’m still at a loss for words but it was very powerful.”

“I know it was something that had to be seen in order for people to begin to grasp an understanding of the effect it has on families when they lose a loved one in such a way,” he continued.

By the time I returned to Los Angeles, news broke that the Weinstein Company, an independent film studio, had acquired distribution rights for Coogler’s film. Coogler said he’s not sure about what he’ll do next but his aim is to always make socially relevant films, whether comedy or drama.

I firmly believe he’ll always have the backing of the man he affectionally called “Uncle Forest” during a Q&A after the Sundance showing. Coogler’s passion and description of the story he wanted to tell motivated him to produce the film, Whitaker said.

“This story itself is so powerful and so important to be told. I think we have these tragedies that we can’t allow to happen anymore. And the beautiful thing about Ryan was that he understood the place, the people enough to make people be able to understand the true emotions and feelings inside of them, to see and paint the people, as opposed to them being cardboard figures that you see on the front of a newspaper or what somebody says in a news bite, but actually to be able to walk with them and let you see how you relate to them,” he told me as we exited the theater.

Whitaker predicted Coogler and Jordan would do unbelievably amazing things.

“They are the leaders of today, not the leaders of tomorrow. This film is leading today. And I’m really proud to be able to just be a part of it. I feel really blessed to be able to have gotten to help in any way to be involved with what he’s doing,” Whitaker said.

As we all left the theater, filmmakers, producers, directors, reporters, it seemed on level one, the goal was met. As many people that stopped to hug or shake hands with and congratulate Coogler and the team involved, just as many paused to tell Ms. Johson and her family they were sorry for their loss and grew akin to Grant because of the film.

“Fruitvale” is coming to a theater near you. It’s painful, powerful, informative, educational and rewarding. Don’t miss it. I almost did.

Related news:

Family: Manslaughter conviction of ex-transit cop won’t end fight for justice  (FCN, 07-19-2010)

Trial in videotaped shooting of Oscar Grant begins in Los Angeles  (FCN, 06-17-2010)

Transit cop who killed unarmed man gets a change of venue  (FCN, 10-29-2009)

Leaders accuse officers of lying in Oscar Grant shooting case  (FCN, 07-02-2009)

Fatal shooting of unarmed man sparks outrage  (FCN, 01-19-2009)