Melissa Merli: Young actress thinking big
Former Champaign girl who's been in four films eager to fulfill dreams
I recently saw "Fruitvale Station," with the added bonus of meeting in person one of its stars.
Nine-year-old Ariana Neal was at the screening at the Savoy 16 with her family, though she and her cousins skipped "Fruitvale" to see "Turbo," advertised as DreamWorks' high-velocity 3-D comedy about an ordinary snail who dares to dream big.
Ariana dreams big.
An immediate goal of the child singer-actress is to be picked up by Disney. She auditioned for the mega-company last Sunday and received a callback.
Ariana would eventually like to win an Academy Award, and act on stage as well as in movies and on TV.
She first came to the attention of show-business types as a 5-year-old singing "Tomorrow" from "Annie" on the "America's Got Talent" TV show, after reaching the celebrity-judges round.
After that, Babes N' Beaus, a talent agency in Atlanta, Ga., signed her. Within a year she started landing work on TV commercials and in movies.
She's been in four features so far. And now, since the release last month of "Fruitvale Station," Los Angeles talent agencies are calling her, asking her and her family to relocate from McDonough, Ga., to California, said her mom, Anna (Clark) Neal.
"We're just taking it one day at a time," Anna Neal told me outside the Savoy 16.
She said she and her husband, Aaron Neal, are trying to maintain some semblance of normality.
"When she's at home, she's still a kid," Anna Neal said of Ariana, the older of their two children. "We're treating her as an average child and raising her to be a reasonable human being.
"We tell people not to treat her any differently. She's shocked to get special treatment because she feels like an average child."
The Neals also haven't allowed Ariana to see "Fruitvale Station" all the way through, even at festival screenings, because of its language and graphic nature. She has just viewed the scenes that include her.
Ariana, an honors student since kindergarten, is entering fourth grade. When she's on a movie set, she has a tutor; her teachers at her school in Georgia also send her work so she can keep up with her class.
Ariana recently finished filming "Papa Noel," starring Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner. The Christmas movie likely will air on Lifetime, the cable TV network.
And she has a major role in "Repentance" as the daughter of Forest Whitaker's character. That movie will be released next year.
Anna Neal said Ariana's role in "Repentance" is larger than that in "Fruitvale Station," in which she appears as protagonist Oscar Grant's daughter, Tatiana. Ariana's role in "Fruitvale" is significant; she appears in opening and closing scenes, and plenty in between.
"Fruitvale Station" tells the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black Bay Area resident who was shot in the back, while he was lying face down with his hands behind his back, on the Bay Area Rapid Transit Fruitvale Station platform early Jan. 1, 2009.
The BART officer who shot Grant was eventually charged and convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Ariana never met the real Tatiana Grant but had heard she was a daddy's girl. So Ariana's challenge was to show that on screen.
She had no problem. She said she and Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant, grew close on set and that helped her characterization.
And in real life, Ariana seems super-close to her father, Aaron Neal, who is the son of Patricia Avery, president of the local chapter of the NAACP and a former chair of the Champaign County Board.
Ariana's also poised, confident and remembers her lines; she doesn't need "sides" — lines for a certain scene — before filming, her mom said.
In front of a camera or while performing, Ariana's a natural. As Tatiana Grant, she said she tried to "keep it as real as possible."
After the screening of "Fruitvale" on July 26 at Savoy 16, Ariana autographed head shots and during a media conference answered questions from Aaron Robinson, editor and publisher of Consciousness Magazine, based in Kankakee; Virgol Hawkins, who was shooting video and is the site coordinator for the Champaign-Urbana Area Project; and myself.
Upon request, Ariana, who spent the first four years of her life in Champaign, also stood to sing "Loving You" by Michael Jackson and the rap number "Price Tag" by British singer-songwriter Jessie J. (My video of Ariana rapping accompanies the online version of this column.)
Afterward she told us she gets her singing talent from her mother and her "swag" from her father.
Her mother is now attending college, majoring in music education. Her father works for Delta Airlines.
Avery, relatives and friends — some from other states — attended the screening at the Savoy 16. Like me, they seemed stunned as the movie ended and we filed quietly out of the theater.
"By it being a true story, it makes it all more powerful," Avery told me in the lobby. "I think I cried throughout the whole movie."
Avery called "Fruitvale" a wonderful story whose time has come, considering the similarities of Grant's case to that of Trayvon Martin.
"These two young African-Americans, unarmed, trying to get home, and their lives end tragically," she said. "That's what probably brought most of the emotions to me. And the (Trayvon Martin) wound is so fresh.
Aaron Neal, who has seen "Fruitvale Station" a few times, told me he can no longer watch the opening scene. It shows real-life video of the shooting of Grant by BART officer Johannes Mehserle.
"When I first saw the actual footage, I felt a lot of emotions," Aaron Neal said. "I felt angry, heartbroken. I felt helpless. Unfortunately, too many black males die at the hands of a gun, whether black-on-black crime, by an officer, or by a civilian."
Aaron Neal told me Ryan Coogler, an Oakland native who wrote and directed "Fruitvale Station," was attending film school at the time Grant was killed; after he heard about it Coogler immediately knew he wanted to make a movie.
Aaron Neal said Coogler's intent was to give Grant his manhood without painting him as an angel. Coogler indeed humanized Grant and his family. As Grant, actor Jordan delivers an affecting, sympathetic performance, one that is garnering Oscar buzz. The other cast members, among them Academy Award-winning Octavia Spencer as Grant's mother, also are wonderful.
I also appreciated Coogler's exploration of middle-class black and Latino family life — the mother of Tatiana is a Latina — as well as the way he presented a couple of positive interactions between Grant and a couple of white folks.
"Fruitvale Station" is receiving largely positive reviews, and at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film. It received the best first film award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
"It was powerful, profoundly so," Ariana's cousin, Kimberley Williams of Milwaukee, said after the screening at the Savoy 16. "It makes you want to value what you have. To me, it feels like we took a couple of steps back when things like that happen."
Four days after the national release of "Fruitvale Station," a federal appeals court in San Francisco cleared the way for the father of Oscar Grant III to file a civil suit against the former BART police officer who shot and killed his son.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a trial judge's decision to permit the suit by Oscar Grant Jr. against Johannes Mehserle.
A Los Angeles jury had convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to two years in prison. He served 11 months.
The 9th Circuit also ruled that two other BART officers who detained Grant and his friends were not entitled to assert police immunity in the civil rights lawsuits filed by the father and Grant's friends.