News Column

For director and star, 'Fruitvale Station' is more than just a movie

July 21, 2013


July 21--For Ryan Coogler, one of the hardest things about making "Fruitvale Station," besides the usual pressures of filming a low-budget movie in three weeks, was seeing the fate of his main character play out over and over.

"I had to watch what happened to Oscar happen so many times in doing the research, and then filming it and then editing it," says the 27-year-old director and screenwriter. "That part of the process is tough, going through all of the emotions of the film so many times. But at the same time, it was balanced with a lot of love, so that helped."

On New Year's Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was a young, unarmed black man heading home after celebrating with friends when he was fatally shot by a transit officer at a commuter train station stop in Oakland, Calif. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison.

Last weekend, "Fruitvale Station" opened in New York and on the West Coast, by happenstance just one day before George Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

As reaction to the verdict and debate over the jury's decision has consumed the nation, the movie has been thrust into a spotlight even bigger than the one it already was occupying courtesy of strong reviews and Academy Awards talk.

Coogler's feature film debut, which opens Friday in Detroit, seems more timely than ever. But as the Hollywood newcomer makes clear, he's addressing a reality that extends beyond a specific case.

"My prayers go out to Trayvon's family and the families of all the young black males that are being killed on the streets, whether it's from black-on-black crime or whether it's a situation like Trayvon's or an officer-involved shooting like with Oscar," he says by phone from Atlanta.

"A lost life is a lost life."

'You'll cry out in protest'

Critics are hailing "Fruitvale Station" for its complex, realistic and heartbreaking portrait of Grant and those closest to him on the last day of his life.

Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, a rising young actor best known for his standout performances in HBO's "The Wire" and NBC's "Friday Night Lights." Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for "The Help," is Grant's stern but loving mother and also one of the film's producers.

The movie shows many sides of Grant: the adoring father of a 4-year-old daughter, the former prisoner, the friendly guy who calls his grandmother to get fish-frying tips for a stranger, the employee who can't hide his anger over losing his job, the boyfriend who has cheated on his girlfriend, the son who dotes on his mom.

"Coogler immerses us in this life, so that when it's cut short, you won't just weep, you'll cry out in protest," writes film critic Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly. " 'Fruitvale Station' is great political filmmaking because it's great filmmaking, period."

Coogler was a film student at the University of Southern California when heard about the death of Grant, who like him was 22 and from Oakland. He saw himself in Grant and knew right away that he wanted to make a movie about what had happened.

He ended up getting backing from actor Forest Whitaker and his production company, and gaining cooperation from Grant's family.

Coogler set out to draw viewers into an emotional intimacy with Grant. "I wanted to have the audience kind of feel like a fly on the wall as they moved around and visited with this character, to bring them close to this character," he says.

Jordan, the film's star, says he first heard about "Fruitvale Station" not long after he played a quarterback facing family pressures on "Friday Night Lights." At the time, he was looking for a gritty independent film.

"There's not a plethora of quality roles for African-American actors out there, especially young African-American actors, that aren't just stereotypes," he says by phone from Los Angeles. "I've been fortunate enough to work on projects with a little bit more integrity ... and break away from these stereotypes."

Jordan found out that Coogler had written the role with him in mind.

"I was very familiar with the story (of Grant)," says Jordan. "I remember when it happened back in 2009, just feeling frustrated and upset and feeling like I wanted to try and express myself and not really having a place to do that. And then four years later, and Trayvon Martin, the shooting happened maybe a week or two before I sat down with Ryan. So it was a way for me to express myself the best way I knew how: through my work."

Keeping it real

Jordan moved to the Bay Area before production started to soak up the atmosphere. During filming, he wore clothes that duplicated items worn by Grant and homed in on details that made Grant who he was.

"He was such a proud dad," says Jordan. "He really loved his daughter so much. She represented his future. That's something that we kept in mind. He always had the biggest smile on his face when he was around his daughter."

The film's realism is at its most haunting in the re-creation of Grant being shot while lying face-down, a sequence filmed on the Bay Area Rapid Transit platform where the incident actually happened. Grant and some friends were detained by transit officers after reports of an altercation. The officer convicted in the case said he mistook his gun for a Taser. Bystanders used smartphones to capture the shooting, which sparked protests across the country.

"Fruitvale Station" won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and took home the honors for best first film at the Cannes Film Festival. An outpouring of praise and momentum has followed it ever since.

In the midst of all the attention, Coogler says he tries to stay focused on his original goal. "The reason I sought to make the project was not to further my career. It was not for any kind of recognition. It was just to tell the story and raise awareness and offer perspective. That was it," he says. "And I hoped that (with) our perspective, people would maybe see a little bit of themselves in the character and it maybe would trigger a thought process like any film does."

Jordan expresses a similar wish. "Hopefully, we'll get people to start having conversations and spark discussions on how to treat people better. How can I be a better person? Because it's in the trying. How can I be the best dad I can? How can I be the best brother I can be? How can I be the best mother I can be? How can I be the best daughter I can be?"

A crackle in the phone grows clearer as Jordan gets to the heart of the matter. "If each individual takes it upon themselves to be better, then we can move forward and not be so quick to judge somebody just because we're different."


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