News Column

Sac State alum makes directorial debut with potent 'Fruitvale Station'

July 21, 2013


July 21--Filmmaker Ryan Coogler chose observation over provocation, insight over outrage, in approaching the story of Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old man fatally shot by a BART police officer at Oakland's Fruitvale station in the early morning of Jan. 1, 2009.

Director and screenwriter Coogler's "Fruitvale Station," opening Friday, chronicles with great realism and immediacy the final day of Grant's life.

In "Station" -- winner of the Grand Jury and Audience awards at January's Sundance Film Festival -- the confrontation between Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and BART officers follows a day on which Oscar shopped for his mother's (Octavia Spencer) birthday dinner and picked up his young daughter (Ariana Neal) from day care.

The film's power lies in the ordinariness of Oscar's activities. Its devastation lies in the audience's awareness of where his day is heading.

"I hope that showing the perspective of this man that got killed in this situation -- showing him through the lens of the people who care about him most -- could maybe bring some perspective to people who would never meet somebody like that," Coogler said during a recent interview at a Berkeley hotel.

Coogler, 27, a Richmond resident, California State University, Sacramento, graduate and former Hornets football player, was home for the holidays from USC film school when Grant was killed. He saw the cellphone video footage that Grant's fellow passengers had shot at the scene of the shooting -- which happened after police pulled Grant and several young men off the train after reports of a fight -- and uploaded to YouTube.

The shooting sparked protests in the Bay Area. Those protests resumed in 2010, after Johannes Mehserle, the officer who killed Grant, received a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. (He said he mistook his gun for his Taser.)

But national awareness of Grant's story never approached that of Trayvon Martin's, with which it shares parallels. The not-guilty verdict in the Martin case came down July 13, during the same weekend "Fruitvale Station" opened in seven cities, including Oakland.

Coogler said he hopes "Fruitvale Station," his feature directing debut, will help further discussions of prejudice and prevent people from making assumptions based on how someone looks or dresses.

"The media representation of people like Oscar -- opening up the paper every day and seeing that somebody has been killed, or it looks like someone has committed a crime -- it's like seeing them in the news as thugs, and 'this is what they are, and this is what they do,' " Coogler said. "There is a dehumanization factor that happens there."

In person, Coogler comes across as earnest and thoughtful, and physically still looks the part of the star wide receiver. Though it's been years since he played for the Hornets, he's still spring-loaded: He leaps up from his chair at one point to close a door to the hotel's slightly noisy hallway so his interviewer can hear him better.

Spring-loaded, and a natural director.

Coogler returned to film school after his holiday break in 2009, but he did not forget those cellphone images of Grant and his friends from the scene of the shooting. In those images, he said, he saw himself and his own friends, who were the same age, dressed similarly and also lived in the East Bay.

He wanted to do something about Grant's death and saw film as his outlet. He could relate to Grant's story, he said, and also see the larger view of the events of that New Year's Eve morning in 2009.

Coogler works as a counselor at San Francisco's juvenile hall. The job gives him insight into "conflicts that exist between groups of people," he said, and an us-and-them mentality that can arise among law enforcers.

He wanted film audiences to truly get to know Oscar Grant. So he wrote a script that unfolds over a single day, in the manner of movies he admires: Gus Van Sant's "Elephant," Paul Greengrass' "United 93" and Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."

Those story structures of those films put "you closer to the characters because you spend every waking moment with them," Coogler said.

In researching his script, Coogler first pored over public documents about the Grant case. Then a friend from USC put him in touch with Grant's family's civil attorney, who introduced him to the family.

He won the family's cooperation and that of BART (the climactic moments of "Fruitvale Station," chillingly, were shot at the the real Fruitvale station), informing each side that his portrayal would be warts-and-all.

While the director had Grant's family's full cooperation, the interview process could be tricky, Coogler said.

"When you research Oscar, there are some things about him that his mom might not know, but that you find out when you talk to his friends," Coogler said. "I wanted to be honest and tell a complete story."

"Fruitvale Station" presents Oscar as a flawed young man who has dealt drugs and been to prison. He angers quickly and does not always tell the truth. But he's trying to do right by his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), who is the mother of his daughter.

The day on which the film takes place -- New Year's Eve, or as Coogler calls it, "the most universally optimistic holiday of the year" -- makes growth seem possible.

BART had changed general managers since Grant's killing, and was "very interested in being part of the healing process around this issue," Coogler said. The transit authority allowed Coogler and crew to shoot at Fruitvale station during off hours last summer, between 1 and 4 a.m. -- the same time frame as the real shooting.

"It was intensely emotional," Coogler said of the three-day BART station shoot. "Everybody there had a sense of reverence."

The $2 million-budgeted "Fruitvale Station" was shot over 20 days in the Bay Area, with Forest Whitaker producing. Coogler met actor-director-producer Whitaker when Coogler was in film school and Whitaker's production company was seeking potential collaborations with young filmmakers. Whitaker agreed to help make the film immediately after hearing Coogler's pitch.

The Weinstein Co., the studio behind recent best-picture Academy Award winners "The Artist" and "The King's Speech," bought "Fruitvale Station" at Sundance for a reported $2.5 million.

Spencer had won her own Academy Award, for her supporting role in "The Help," not long before the "Fruitvale" shoot.

Though Coogler was an untested director, "I liked his point of view," said Spencer, in Berkeley for interviews with Coogler and other cast members. "This is a very combustible topic, and as an African American male, he could have made it an indictment of our judicial system. Or he could have martyrized Oscar. But what he chose to do is show him as a human being."

Jordan, 26, who played quarterback Vince on "Friday Night Lights" and tragic young drug dealer Wallace on "The Wire," said acting for a director his age "felt like I was making a movie with one of my best friends."

"Usually, when you work with more established directors, sometimes the information only travels one way," Jordan said. "This one was much more of a collaboration."

Coogler said he was "terrified" going into film's fast-paced shoot.

"But that's part of the job -- I used that as motivation to work and to make sure that I was doing my best in every aspect of it," he said.

Coogler encountered pressure situations before in Hornets games. Off the field, he majored in finance but enrolled in film courses as well. Coogler said film classes he took from professors Roberto Pomo and Steve Buss helped determine his career path.

"By the time I was making my first short film -- and I shot it on Sac State's campus -- that's when I fell in love with making movies," Coogler said. "I realized I loved it as much as I loved football."

When Coogler applied to the film MFA program at USC -- Buss' alma mater and one of the nation's top film schools -- "I figured that was like buying a lottery ticket," he said.

When he found out he had been accepted, he was excited but also slightly hesitant, Coogler said. He still was considering a pro football career.

"I had some friends playing arena (football), and some friends playing in Canada, and I really loved playing football," Coogler said.

But USC would not let him defer his acceptance. And he decided he wanted to make movies "while I was still young," he said, and could offer a young person's perspective.

If there is a loftier goal than a successful professional sports career, it's a successful filmmaking career. Yet here Coogler is, discussing a debut feature that wowed Sundance and has been mentioned as an early contender for the 2014 best-picture Oscar.

"Fruitvale" buzz has sparked industry interest in Coogler, the director acknowledged. But he remains focused on the film and its potential impact on viewers.

"I just hope people come away from it thinking," Coogler said. "And I hope they see some of themselves and some of the people they love in the characters."


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