Every filmmaker has his or her passion project. Lucky enough for director Ryan Coogler, his wound up winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance. Such acclaim subsequently resulted in a bidding war that was later won by The Weinstein Company. Since then it has been a front runner to receive attention from the Academy.
Fruitvale Station marks a huge feat for the first time director. With the media circling around the Trayvon Martin case, Fruitvale Station is relevant as it is timeless. The film tells the tragic tale of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who was shot by a BART officer on New Year’s Day 2009.
While the death of Oscar Grant was highly publicized, as were the riots in the Bay Area, Coogler focuses on uncharted territory by showing a day in the life of an urban youth. Throughout most of the film, Grant spends the day leading up to his death in reflection, as the creeping feeling of being suffocated by his criminal past comes to a head.
Grant represented many things to people: he was a father, a son, a partner, an ex-con, and a lost youth, and Coogler doesn’t shy from any of these labels. While it’s hard to know what kind of person the real Oscar Grant was, Coogler fills in the blanks that an audience wouldn’t find in the media, or in court documents. Finding research through conversations with Grant’s daughter Tatiana, his then-girlfriend Sophina, and his mother Wanda, Coogler set out to neither vilify nor immortalize Grant.
Refreshingly Coogler’s tale doesn’t buck to convention, or speak to a specific demographic, but still paints an accurate portrait of a world we don’t often see on the other side of the lens. In the end Fruitvale Station is an honest portrait of a life lost.
The Inquisitr’s Niki Cruz sat down with director Ryan Coogler to speak about the life of Oscar Grant, and the depiction of black youths in America.
THE INQUISITR: What intrigued you about the story?
RYAN COOGLER: It was something that was very personal for me. I was born and raised in the Bay Area where the incident happened. I had a very close proximity to it. I’ve been in the same circumstances before. His friends look like my friends. I actually cast some of my friends to play his friends in the film. They wore the same kind of clothes. Watching the film is like having to watch it happen to myself. Afterwards it was seeing how people took Oscar to make him an icon for whatever political agenda that they had. They wanted him to be this saint, or an activist, or just a perfect person who was slaughtered. Then there are people on the other side who used what he was to verify whatever hateful things they wanted to say about people like him. There was really nothing in between. If you’re looking at the true tragedy of the event, it’s the fact that this 22-year-old dude didn’t make it home to people that he loved. I thought that a film could maybe offer some insight.
THE INQUISITR: Where did you get the elements of the script? How much was research from the family, and how much was fact?
COOGLER: I talked to the family. I had a lot of access to them in terms of research. Initially I didn’t. I wrote the script and turned it into the Sundance Labs based off of the publicly available court documents from the case, both the criminal case and the civil case. Everything that was said in court was publicly available. Similar to the Trayvon case right now. Once I met the family and Forest Whitaker came on board, they started to engage with Significant Productions, and they signed the rights, and then the doors opened for me to sit down and interview them. I talked to Oscar’s sister, his mom, his girlfriend Sophina, and his daughter Tatiana, and his friends. From there I was able to pepper in what I had learned about his relationship with his loved ones. That was the point where Oscar’s character started to take a three dimensional quality that I was looking for.
THE INQUISITR: You brought up Trayvon Martin. Do you think this film will add a new perspective to people who are watching the case right now?
COOGLER: I’m not sure. I hope it offers insight. I hope that people that see the film can connect with Oscar, and to see the things they have in common with the character, or see their relationships in the relationships that he has regardless of what their background is. There’s so many people who live their lives and never come into contact with black males. So often the people that are called on to be a part of a jury are the people that go into those communities and work as police officers, or people that create politics that directly affects these people. I think that any time any insight can be given to what it’s like to people like this, especially an insight that isn’t coming from conventional means, I think people can hopefully have some empathy there, and see things a little bit differently. Everyone has a family, but so often representations for people like Oscar aren’t shown through that lens in the media. It’s a very shallow lens and opinions get deformed from those representations and it’s hurtful.
THE INQUISITR: Although you can assert your own ideas, the audience never gets a straight answer on how the gun went off. It’s ambiguous.
COOGLER: I was much more focused on the fact that he died unnecessarily. Any way you look at it, his death had an impact, and not the impact that was shown in the media. It wasn’t the impact that came with the results of the riots, but on the people that knew this person. The people that expected him to come home. It’s the fact that so many young black males die at the hands of a gun, regardless of who’s holding the trigger. Whether it’s a cop, a white dude, or as sad as it is, another black dude that’s pointing the trigger. These lives get ended. They’re ended oftentimes before these kids know about the person they want to be. I found the tragedy to lie in that.
THE INQUISITR: Do you hope to change people with this film?
COOGLER: That’s a tall order for a movie [LAUGHS]. I think that any artist can hope for is that their art can inspire thought. I think human thought is one of the most powerful resources in the planet. We’re in this city, in this massive building, and all of this started with human thought. Art can inspire thought, and maybe see something in a different perspective. Maybe that can in some point lead to change, but I don’t expect the film to change people. That’s crazy. [LAUGHS].
THE INQUISITR: Did you have Michael B. Jordan in mind when you were writing the script?
COOGLER: Yes I had him in mind very early on. I was a big fan of his early work. I’ve seen most of it. His film work came out while I was writing it, both Chronicle and Red Tails. It was great because he’s been acting since forever, so I was familiar with him as a kid. For me it’s a role that’s not like many I’ve seen. It’s a very important role. I knew that I needed the best actor to do it, and for me he was the guy. Upon meeting him he won me over. Mike has a phenomenal work ethic, and he just rolled with the punches.
THE INQUISITR: How was it to have Octavia Spencer there?
COOGLER: She’s an incredible actress, which is obvious. When we offered her the script she had just won the Oscar for the best supporting for The Help. When she signed on I was ecstatic, but I got nervous. We had no money, and I thought, “Is she going to want to shoot in my Grandma’s house, and these real locations? Is she going to want to shoot all of the hospital scenes in one day?” She’s so down to earth, so warm, and so youthful. She’s a big kid. She’s a battery pack that got hooked up to the project. Her energy is infectious. It was wonderful to have her. I was blessed to have great actors involved.
THE INQUISITR: How do you think Oscar’s generation will react to the film?
COOGLER: I’m a part of that generation. I work in juvenile hall with a lot of kids like Oscar, and I hope that the reaction to it will be one that’s positive, but also to come away thinking. I think what Oscar was thinking about on that day is that his choices were affecting the people that he loved. I hope that they can think about that as well.
THE INQUISITR: Are you surprised by the success this film and all of the attention you’re receiving?
COOGLER: Absolutely. I’m the most surprised one here. For me it was a miracle just to finish it. It was a miracle getting it sent to a festival. Each step of the way has been surprising and moving. It was never supposed to be finished.
THE INQUISITR: How come you decided to end the film the way you did? Why not expand it into the trials?
COOGLER: I decided to end the film there because that’s what I was interested in. I was much more interested in the intimate impact by the people that knew him most. For me that kind of gets glossed over, especially when a case is built up politically. What people are hearing about in terms of this case is the trial, they’re hearing about the riots, and the rallies, and the protests. That’s what was publicized. That’s what there was footage of. There weren’t any reports on the fact that his girl had to tell his daughter that he wasn’t coming back while in the shower. I found that out from talking to Sophina personally. The most important people in his life were his mom, his girlfriend, and his daughter. His mom represented his past, his girlfriend represented his present, and his daughter represented his future, so it made perfect sense to end the film with her. In many ways it got cut short.
FRUITVALE STATION IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE NOW.