There are no adequate words to describe the emotions of a mother who has lost a child…even fewer when that loss is the result of senseless violence. But Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, continues pushing herself to speak about what happened to her son, whose memory is honored in the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer portrays Johnson in the film. (In theaters nationwide on July 26). JET spoke with Johnson for our cover story that is currently on newsstands, and here we offer the full interview with a woman whose dignity, grace and religious conviction under unimaginable circumstances left both the film’s actors and this interviewer in awe.
Q: Wanda, the Oscar Grant Foundation, which is run by your brother/Oscar’s uncle, is keeping attention on what happened to your son as well as assisting other families who have lost a child to police brutality. What is your level of involvement?
“I try to help with events, but my brother and his wife, Sister Beatrice X, do a lot of the planning because I’m still working at UPS. Sister Beatrice works with different organizations to get the message out. I assist wherever they need me.”
Q: What was it like watching “Fruitvale Station?” We understand you were particularly impressed with Michael B. Jordan’s performance as your son?
“He did a very impressive job. He had the opportunity to spend time with me and Oscar’s friends and he learned a lot about Oscar and did a dynamic job. I was very satisfied in that area. The film did depict my son as a human being with some issues, but overcoming those issues. Unfortunately, he died without having the chance to fully show how much he was maturing.”
Q: When I spoke to the cast, universally, they mentioned hating the way the media depicted Oscar during the trial. Michael B. Jordan, in particular, said he feels they put Oscar on trial…What would you say to those outlets if you could?
“The thing that I would like to say to the media is that the media demonized Oscar and he loved people, he loved his daughter and he loved being able to be a leader. They tried to take his human qualities and demonize him so that people would just say this guy’s no good, a thug or whatever. Oscar loved his mother, and he loved his daughter. I’m so grateful that when Oscar was murdered…people sent letters from where he was working telling me what Oscar had done for them.”
Q: Do you see parallels between the way the media and courts treated Oscar and the way they treated Trayvon Martin?
“Absolutely. I definitely see parallels. The first order of business for Sanford [Florida] was to demonize Trayvon. When my son was murdered, they did try to demonize him. One of the first reports was that he had a gun, and then they had to take it back. They also tried to say he had drugs in his system, but that was a drug that had been given to him while he was in surgery. I don’t think it was just done to these two young men. Black and Brown young men come under fire just for being killed by police. The first thing they do is try to go back to past history and dig up anything they can to make people think that person deserves to die. Even a lot of African Americans have been trained not to look for the good. Once we hear the worst, we go with that. That is why that is one of the values I instilled in my children. There is good in everybody. Don’t let anybody tell you who is a horrible person. Give everyone a chance.”