CANNES, France -- You’d expect a savvy pro such as Octavia Spencer to have dropped in on the Cannes Film Festival once or twice over the years.
But there she was on Thursday afternoon, taking it all in like a wide-eyed tourist.
“First time," said the 42-year-old Oscar winner. “First time. I guess I should go out and see some big movies,” she added with her usual irreverence as she sat at a beachside restaurant, gazing at tables of diners and the yachts docked in the Mediterranean beyond them. “But I’ve gotta talk about this movie.”
“This movie” is “Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler's Sundance darling about real-life BART passenger Oscar Grant, killed by transit police on New Year’s Eve four years ago.
The 26-year-old-filmmaker focuses on the last day of Grant's life, on which he attempts to create more stability for his significant other and child, only to see all those efforts end tragically during a heated exchange with BART police at an Oakland train station where he and his friends are unfairly targeted.
Spencer plays Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson -- a woman who, ironically, urged Grant to take the train instead of drive that night, well-intentioned advice that turned out to be fatal.
In the months since the movie played Sundance, where it won the rare dual crown of top audience and jury prizes, Spencer said she's kept her distance from the real-life woman she played.
"I've been trying to give her some space," she said. "I talked to her before we made the movie, but I know it's been hard for her since she's seen it." [Much of Grant's family was at Sundance.] We’re all sitting there watching a character, but she’s watching her son."
The Weinstein Co. film lands at the Cannes festival in the Un Certain Regard section -- an excited crowd lined up to see the movie late on a rainy Thursday night -- which positions it well for its June 12 release and a likely awards-season run to follow.
The Cannes section tends to choose one Sundance film to showcase, providing an unusually accurate barometer of films in the Oscar race. In 2009, its choice for the unofficial Sundance slot was “Precious,” which wound up being nominated for best director and best picture. Last year, it went with another race-themed film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which also scored top nominations. Both those movies also nabbed acting nominations.
Like those films, “Fruitvale" played to an audience in France that’s different from the one that greeted it at Sundance. Spencer said she hoped they embrace those elements.
“I know there might be some different reactions from people here,” said the actress, who has the Diablo Cody “Paradise” upcoming and also just finished writing a screen adaptation of a book about the Jonestown massacre. “But I think fundamentally they’ll be the same: to see Oscar as a human. When something like this shooting happens, some people want call him a saint and others want to bring him down. And he’s just human. That's all we're trying to show."
Yet in the months since it played Sundance, the film has faced skepticism from those who say it lionizes its subject. Spencer sought to wave away those criticisms. “I know there are detractors, saying we put him on a pedestal. But that’s who he was. He was a son, a father, a felon and someone trying to be a better person."
Across the restaurant sat Michael B. Jordan, the former “Friday Night Lights” star who earned plaudits for his breakout film performance as Grant. He too was enamored by the fevered spectacle that Cannes, which with its hordes of paparazzi and star-seekers on the one hand and top-flight international filmmakers and their fans on the other, has a flavor unlike most film gatherings.
“It’s like ‘March Madness’ with some of these films -- you didn’t realized you cared about something so much, and then all of a sudden you're arguing about it because you feel invested,” he said with some exuberance. Then, more pensively, "I hope a lot of people are arguing for our film."
Jordan said he knew there was a long road ahead, but that he hoped the overall perception of the movie as a drama to be reckoned with would be cemented here: "This is it. I mean, the French are the taste-makers, right?"
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