In the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009, a 22-year-old unarmed black man named Oscar Grant was shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department police officer in Oakland's Fruitvale train station. Dozens of people witnessed this and several of them recorded the incident on their cell phones. Footage uploaded to YouTube went viral almost immediately. Johannes Mehserle, the officer who shot and killed Grant, was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter, sentenced to two years in jail and served less than a year's worth of time.
Fruitvale Station presents a fictionalized account of Grant's last day on Earth. The feature-length directorial debut from 26-year-old Ryan Coogler won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award earlier this year at Sundance, as well as the Best First Film award at Cannes. Like Grant, Coogler grew up in the Bay Area, and based the film on his research (he worked on Grant's civil trial) and interviews with Grant's friends and family. Its climax (which recreates Grant's shooting) and denouement are the most moving 30 minutes of filmmaking I've seen all year.
I talked to Coogler yesterday by phone about his film, the minor critiques it has received, poetic license and protest.
RJ: You've been talking about this movie since Sundance. Are you sick of it yet?
RC: (Laughs) No, it's part of the process, you know? To be honest with you, I'm grateful that people are interested in talking about it. A lot of times great movies are made, and they don't have the blessing of people wanting to talk, wanting to connect. I'm thankful for that.
Why do you think people want to talk about this movie so much?
Well, I can tell you what we set out to do: We wanted to make this movie very specific. Specific to the Bay Area, specific to the story that it's based on. I wanted to make sure we got those things right, but at the same time what the film was about to me was this 22-year-old guy and his relationships. His relationships are things that people can universally relate to. Everybody knows what it's like to have struggles, and to have those struggles affect the people you care about most as well as yourself.
Among the very few critiques of the film is the notion that the portrayal of Oscar, especially in the film's first half, is overly positive. What do you think of that? I wondered if you were correcting for the racism that some people will bring with them into the movie theater.
No... People can have their opinions on different things. I can't help that. For me, it was never about showing Oscar as a great guy. To be honest, I think it's weird to say that he's overly positive. If you look at what he's doing, he's been released from a maximum security prison, he's still doing the same things that got him into prison: using drugs, selling drugs, riding around with drugs. He's dealing with a lot of things. For someone to say he's overly positive, my question would be: Where? And why would you say that? Is it overly positive because he's shown having a relationship with his daughter, because he's shown loving his family? My question is: Is it that rare that young African American males are shown like that for people to say that it's not true?
Despite the situations Oscar is dealing with, the viewer is never without a sense of his kindness. He's generous to his family, strangers and a dog. Was that dog incident, in which he befriends a stray dog that dies in his arms just moments later after being hit by a car, actually part of Grant's last day?
No, the dog was a situation of poetic license. It's a polarizing scene. Some people see it as, "Oscar's kind, he cares about animals," but that's not what it's about. One of Oscar's big things was that he wanted to get a house outside of Hayward, to get him away from stuff. He was in and out of apartments, and in apartments you can't have your own pet. He wanted a back yard so he could have a dog. He wanted a pit bull. He was a dog guy. Getting his house and getting a dog was his version of the American dream in many ways.
Oscar spent a lot of time by himself on his last day. When you say he had a kindness to him, one thing I discovered about his character was that he was always trying to keep people around him happy. He was always putting on a front that everything was fine, and I think it stemmed from a fear of rejection. Oscar was known for being the life of a party and a people pleaser. He was dealing with a lot of stuff inside that he wouldn't let people see. [His girlfriend Sophina Mesa] said that when he picked her up from work that day, he was really off. He was really kind of down and introspective. He wasn't himself. She picked at him to find out what he had done that day, but I was curious as to what he saw that affected him like that.
I have a little brother who did some music on the film, his name is Noah Coogler. He's the kind of person who's the same way: nice and kind and happy all the time. He's a people pleaser who kind of holds in his emotions very often. He came home one day and was really out of it. I noticed it and I picked at him to find out what happened. He told me he went to a gas station and had an interaction with a stray dog and saw it get hit by a car. It died right there in front of him. He didn't know what to do with it. He left it there. I heard that story and I thought about Oscar. I thought about how pit bulls are kind of viewed in society and portrayed by the media as vicious fighting dogs that attack and kill children. People who own them tell you they're the best dogs. I thought about how so many young African American males die in the streets all the time, to the point that it's something we just deal with and keep moving. So I put that scene in there. It wasn't about Oscar being a great dog person. It's about how for people who hold in emotions so much, one thing can trigger their breaking.
Is this film an act of protest?
Um...I'm not sure what to say about that. What do you mean?
I read about your background and how affected you were by Oscar's story. When something like this happens and you can't do anything about it, what can you do? You can demonstrate. You can express yourself publicly for this injustice and all of the injustices like it.
I would definitely say it's a form of expression. I'll never deny the fact that art works as an outlet for so many different people. It definitely works like that for me. I don't think you're wrong in your assessment.
With Fruitvale Station, with the Trayvon Martin case, with mainstream hip-hop turning more overtly political than it's been in decades, do you feel like we're in a time where voices speaking out against racism are amplified? Do you feel like you're taking part in this amplified discourse?
Or do you not even think of the bigger, discursive picture?
I hope that the film will inspire thought process in the people who watch it that can lead to discourse. I think that art has the ability to make people think. Film, like any art, has the ability to trigger insight. It's a human experience that might be distance from someone in the physical sense. I think filmmaking is an art form that is already so amplified and immersive. It's really the most immersive storytelling format that's ever existed. I think that by its very nature and its ability to make people think and to inspire discussion, it's something me and all the people involved in the film hoped for.
But number one my goal was just to get the film finished and to tell the story. So often, people say they've never heard about the situation before seeing the film, which I think is a victory for the filmmakers. I wanted to tell a story and raise awareness about this situation and maybe trigger a thought process. For me it isn't just about racism. For me it's more about the fact that so many people like Oscar are dying unnecessary violent deaths, regardless of who was holding the trigger. These young people are losing their lives and they're leaving people behind.
As devastating as the movie is, especially in its last half hour, it's also really hopeful, especially regarding the racial angle. A lot of Oscar's conversations transcend race.
That's very truthful. Those things are based on real events. I lived in the Bay Area my whole life. The Bay Area is a very, very liberal place, man. It's a place where race relations are complex, but very progressive. Oscar had white friends, he had Indian friends, he had Hispanic friends. If you go to Farmer Joe's where he worked, you see everybody. Oscar really did put his grandmother on the phone with this white lady who was trying to figure out how to fry fish. It's not because he was overly nice, that's just kind of Bay Area culture. However, it can change. It can go bad. We deal with violence at alarming rates. We deal with major, major, major conflict between police and members of the community. That stuff is still all there. One of the most interesting things about this even is that it happened in the Bay Area. That was like an identity crisis for people. That it happened in the Bay Area in 2009 after America had elected its first African American president, that was really a gut punch.
The festival circuit attracts a liberal audience. Have you had any sense of preaching to the choir up till now? How does it feel to release this movie to the greater population?
We made the film on a very small budget and getting accepted to a festival was a huge victory, just knowing that the movie would play at least six times in Park City, where people were coming from all over the country. So many people who saw the film never heard of Oscar Grant, so there's no way that's preaching to the choir. My hope was that the film would play for people from places other than the Bay Area, who never grew up with people around Oscar, and gain some insight on what it's like to be us.
[Image of Coogler with Fruitvale Station stars Melonie Diaz and Michael B. Jordan via Getty]