MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Finally today, we return to a very disturbing story from the beginning of 2009. It's the story of Oscar Grant, a young unarmed black man who was shot and killed by an Oakland Transit police officer on New Year's Day that year.
The shooting set off days of riots and other unrest in Oakland and lots of conversations about relationships between citizens and the police. But now, there's a new feature film that takes a very different look at that story. The film follows the 24 hours leading up to the shooting, when Oscar Grant is trying to get a head start on his New Year's resolutions, like being a better father to his little girl.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRUITVALE STATION")
ARIANA NEAL: (As Tatiana) I hear guns outside.
MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) You know what, baby, that's just firecrackers. We're safe inside with your cousins.
NEAL: (As Tatiana) What about you, Daddy?
JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) Me? Baby, I'm going to be fine.
MARTIN: The film is called "Fruitvale Station," and you just heard Michael B. Jordan and Ariana Neal. The film won critical acclaim at this year's Sundance Film Festival, taking home the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, and it opens in select theaters tomorrow. Joining us now to talk more about it is Michael B. Jordan. He stars as Oscar Grant. Also with us, Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer. You'll remember her from her award-winning role in "The Help." In this film, she plays Oscar Grant's mother, and she is one of the producers. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Thank you.
JORDAN: Hey, how you doing? Glad to be here. How's everything?
MARTIN: Well, great, thank you. Before we talk about the movie, I wanted to ask you both if you remember how you heard about Oscar Grant's death and if you remember what went through your mind when you heard about it. And Michael, I'll start with you.
JORDAN: Yeah, I definitely remember when it happened. I was actually in LA on my computer, you know, on Facebook, and I just remember somebody posting it on the wall. And I remember watching the video and being kind of shocked at first, hoping that it wasn't real. And after I watched it a few times and I was trying to look for any reason or justification for him being shot and I couldn't find one, so I just got upset and frustrated, and I felt helpless.
You know, I wanted to do something, but I couldn't think of anything to really do. So, you know, four years later, when I had the opportunity to kind of, you know, play this role, I felt a certain responsibility to step up and, you know, try to express myself as best as I could through my work.
MARTIN: I want to hear more about that in a minute, but, Octavia Spencer, can I ask you the same question? Do you remember how you heard about this? Do you remember what went through your mind when you first heard about this?
SPENCER: To put in context for me, Barack Obama had just been elected president, and I was in a, I don't know, elated state that I really wasn't allowing anything to perforate, you know. So I remember hearing about it, and I thought, you know what, I'm going to look at this later, our country just took a huge step forward. So I decided to file it and then, sadly, didn't get back to it until last year.
MARTIN: I heard a conversation with you - one of our producers actually, NPR producers, heard a conversation with you, I think, right after the film was just finished or was just being screened. And you said that you had some reluctance about getting involved with this project. Do you mind talking a little bit about that?
SPENCER: We were coming off of a busy award season and doing back-to-back jobs, and I had two days off, well, actually a day and a half, and my agent wanted me to read this script. He sent a file that was the script, a short film and some of the video footage. So I was tired and a little bit lazy, maybe, and I just did the shortcut. I watched the short film that Ryan did, which had nothing to do with the movie. Then I watched the video. And to say that I was incensed would be putting it mildly.
I definitely felt a little disenfranchised, and, at the time, the Trayvon Martin incident had just occurred. And I do remember, when all of this happened in the Bay area, that there were riots and things, and I felt like I was too angry and that anger wasn't perhaps the best emotion to tell this story. I felt like the mother deserved more than that. And I told my agent that I, you know, I was just too angry. I didn't feel I had anything else to offer the role. And he said, good, I'm glad you feel that way.
You should read the script, because you will be surprised. I read the script, and I was immediately captivated by Ryan's voice. To be honest with you, we laugh about this now, but I thought Ryan Coogler was Jewish. And then I read the script and went back and looked at more of the attache that they sent over about Ryan, and realized he was African-American. And I thought, wow, if anyone was well within their rights to tell this story from a certain perspective, it would be this young man. And level heads need to prevail in order for learning and healing to occur. And that's what Ryan did by just showing Oscar doing, you know, regular things.
There are some detractors who will say, well, they tried to paint him in this light that he, you know, he wasn't. But he just shows him doing everyday things that we never really get to see with young men of color. They're either vilified or martyred, in a way, with these types of incidents. And I felt like, you know, Trayvon Martin was too soon after Oscar Grant, and so if we, socially, don't have the conversation that this movie is sort of engendering, then we are going to have this problem continuing to occur. So I wanted to be a part of something that would have a certain social impact.
MARTIN: This is probably a good place to play a short clip from the film, and I think this is - the reason this is a good time to play a clip from the film is I've got a scene with the two of you, and it's a flashback from the time when Wanda, who you play, Wanda, who's Oscar's mother, visited Oscar in jail. And she was trying to check him, because she talked about how he was losing touch with his daughter, and then - I'm going, I want to play the clip - and then, Michael, I want you to talk a little bit about it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRUITVALE STATION")
JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) Man, you got to tell her I love her. Tell her I ain't never going to leave her.
SPENCER: (As Wanda) Tell her yourself. The next time you call home, you tell her yourself. Or better yet, let her come visit you here.
JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) Yeah, but I don't - she don't need to be exposed...
SPENCER: (As Wanda)You already exposed her. You already exposed her to this.
JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) So you're going to leave me? You're going to leave me again? What kind of mom is you? I'm in here by myself.
SPENCER: (As Wanda) I love you, Oscar.
JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) No, you don't love nothing.
SPENCER: (As Wanda) I do, and I'm praying for you. I'll see you when you get home.
JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) Hey, mom, hold up. Let me get a hug, ma. Hey, ma, I can't get a hug?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Grant, back to the visiting area. Grant.
JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) Hey, ma, I'm sorry. Get out of here, man. Ma, I'm sorry. Let me get a hug, ma. Let me just get a hug, ma. Hey, ma, I'm sorry.
MARTIN: It's a hard scene to watch, one of many, maybe all. Michael, what was this - what were you hoping to bring to this? And I think, just again to remind people, people will know you from the hit TV shows "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," also the films "Red Tails" and "Chronicle." So you've done, you know, gritty subjects before, but I wanted to ask what were you hoping to bring to this?
JORDAN: Just a level of honesty, humanization to Oscar. And, you know, being somebody from the inner city - I'm from Newark, New Jersey - and I had my run-ins with authority figures, you know, in such a way that I felt like I was being, you know, racially profiled, harassed, etc., etc., - having those moments in life and feeling isolated, you know, feeling like you have - trying to come from these circumstances, you know, like, being a product of your environment, coming from the inner city and trying to find a way out and not knowing how to express yourself in certain areas and being young and being 22 and knowing how it feels to make mistakes and then trying to learn from those mistakes and apply that life lesson to your life and to your future, and then growing and maturing.
You know, I've had that luxury of being able to mature, but Oscar didn't have that. And giving Oscar a voice, that was very important to me. And yeah, that's what I was hoping to bring to it. I'm thrilled and ecstatic that people are appreciating the work that me and Octavia and Ryan put into this, 'cause we put a lot.
MARTIN: We're talking about the new film "Fruitvale Station." We're speaking with the actors Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer, two of the critical roles in the film. Michael, can I ask you this, though, as - you know, I know that - I'll just say, as a mother of a son, this was very hard for me to watch, even though I knew, I know the outcome, right...
MARTIN: ...Even though I deal with this material and cover these stories. And Octavia Spencer referenced Trayvon Martin. I was wondering if it was hard for you to do, thinking that this could be you?
JORDAN: Yeah, I definitely felt like it could have been me. Do I think it was hard to do? I think it was definitely a challenge, you know, playing somebody that was real, not a fictional character that, whose family and friends I can touch and talk to and knew him so well. That's one of the side effects of being an actor. That's one of the sacrifices, you take on that person's pain. You take on their emotion. You take on their mind state. You make it as personal as you can. And it's like, almost like you're a glutton for punishment and pain. You know what you're getting yourself into. You know the aftereffects of it.
But you want to do it, because you love what you're doing so much and you feel like this is a story that really needs to be told, and it's so important to me. And it is hard to watch sometimes, but it's so powerful and it sends such a message that I think the youth needs to hear and needs to see nowadays. Because I think, among young people, I think we just don't value life as much as we used to or as much as we should. And to kind of see, to see yourself on screen or to see enough of yourself as somebody, it hits home. So it was something that I really felt as though I had to do.
MARTIN: Octavia Spencer, do you mind if I ask you the same question? You're playing people who are still here to have an opinion about your work, and also, you obviously feel a sense of responsibility about it. And you are one of the producers, too. And I'm just interested in how you, you know, how you thought about what it is you wanted to do?
SPENCER: It was important to me because I have nephews who would be contemporaries of Oscar Grant's. And I know that when I'm home visiting - it wasn't even anything I was cognizant of until I started getting ready for this role - and whenever they would say that they were going out with their friends, I would kind of have a moment where I seized up, where it's like, oh, you know. And I don't think any parent - now I'm not a parent - I don't think any parent should have to feel that way when their kids go out into the world for a social gathering.
It's important because what happened in the Bay area, people were trying to justify why this young man should have died, talking about his past, talking about everything from, you know, what he was doing up until the moment. And to me, the only thing that is salient is what was he doing at the time he was killed. He was lying on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. That's all that should be discussed.
We spend so much time trying to vilify these young men, and yet, you know, when you have, you know, kids who go into schools and shoot up schools, you know, we learn every single, solitary thing about their lives. You know, we learned he was the president of the debate team and, you know, all of these different attributes, and it's all to be evocative of empathy. But we can't really do that when it comes to young men of color, and we have to examine that. Once we can start to empathize with people that we think are different from ourselves, we will see them as human beings. And when we see them as human beings, I think these incidents will less likely occur.
So to take on the role of Wanda Johnson, it's the biggest role I've ever played. And I do have a responsibility, because once the lights go out and this movie goes to, you know, whatever it's going to do, this woman and her family have to continue to exist. Michael and I, we all felt the gravity of the situation and understood what it meant for this woman to grieve so publicly and then to have her son raked through the mud, you know. All of these different things, we understood. That's why we are here, and that's why we are presenting this movie, so that we can have these conversations.
MARTIN: Do you think that people will see this film who don't already agree with you? And do you worry about that?
SPENCER: I don't worry about it. What I hope - you see, we're all different people when we are alone with our thoughts than what, when we are out in the world. And I only want to touch you when you're alone with your thoughts, because that is the person that changes. That is the person that is going to make a different choice, you know, should that situation arise.
So I want to talk about it with people, but if people have a perception of what they think it's going to be about and then don't see it and then say things, you know, oh, you guys did this and this and this, this, and this, you know, it's like you are making an uninformed opinion. Be informed. But yeah, I'm definitely game to talk about it.
MARTIN: Will you be very disappointed, though? I mean, you're coming off of this very successful film, "The Help," which, as you know, there are a lot of people who are still very ambivalent about the role, the character and everything about it. And yet the film was very successful and very successful for you both. And I'm just wondering, having put so much of yourself into this role, will you be very hurt if people don't come to see it?
SPENCER: Oh, absolutely not. I mean, you know, you don't choose roles because of other people. I choose things that speak to me. But this really isn't about me. It's about a situation that is rampant in our country right now. So that's what is the prevailing mindset for me. Whether or not people are happy or sad, you know, my Oscar and the Golden Globe and the SAGs and the Critics' Choice, they're all side-by-side, and they can't be taken away. So those people that are upset about it, I'm sorry, but I have them. And they'll have to live with that.
MARTIN: Bring them next time so I can touch them. Line them all up. Well, thank you for that. And Michael B. Jordan, before we let you go, what would you most like people to draw from this film?
JORDAN: I just want people to, you know, to feel some type of emotion, look at themselves in the mirror at the end of the day and ask, how can I be a better person? How can I not be so quick to judge, you know, somebody that I deem different? It's not being so influenced by the things that you hear, and just judge a person on a case-by-case basis, and look at people as a human being, you know, not just, I don't know, what they read in a newspaper, what they see on a news clip. You know, I just want people just to start thinking and talk and not be so quick to judge one another.
SPENCER: That would be nice.
JORDAN: That would be nice.
MARTIN: Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar Grant in the new film "Fruitvale Station." Academy Award-winning and Golden Globe and SAG award-winning actress Octavia Spencer plays Oscar's mother in that film. She also helped produce "Fruitvale Station." It opens in theaters tomorrow. They both joined us from New York. Thank you both so much for joining us.
SPENCER: Thank you.
JORDAN: No problem.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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