NATIONWIDE – Home on Christmas break from the University of Southern California, he watched televised cell phone footage of an unarmed Black man being roughed up and subsequently shot by a White Bay Area transit officer who said he mistook his gun for his taser. He knew it could easily have been him.
Four years later, writer-director Ryan Coogler is telling the man’s story in his new film, “Fruitvale Station.” The film is named after the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station where 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed on New Year’s Day 2009. The film was released in select cities just as protests were being waged across the country in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin after following him because he “looked suspicious.”
Coogler, who hails from Richmond and Oakland, said he identified with Grant. Coogler was at a special screening of the film in Sacramento this week. He attended Sacramento State University and played football for the Hornets.
“He looked like me, he was the same age as me, he was from the same area that I’m from, he was wearing the clothes that I wear. His friends looked like my friends. I’ve been in those situations before with being detained. Because of the proximity that I have with situations that have happened in my neighborhood, where I’m from, the places I’ve been, that it was on my news channel, all those things made me feel it very, very deeply.”
It was that question, Coogler says, that he wanted to explore.
“Why is it that it takes someone to be close to us for us to maybe see things from their perspective? Why does it take someone close to us for us to feel something when something happens to them? We should see human beings as human beings,” he said.
Grant is portrayed on film by actor Michael B. Jordan (“Friday Night Lights,” “The Wire”). Coogler is receiving high praise for showing the human side of Grant, flaws and all. He says he “got to know” Grant initially through court records.
“The court documents kind of detailed what Oscar’s day was like indirectly. The lawyers asked ‘What did ya’ll do, where did you go,’ asked his friends ‘when did you meet up with Oscar,’ so I had that.”
The 27-year-old writer-director also spent time with Grant’s family and friends.
“Every human being walking around today is important to somebody. Everybody has somebody they mean the world to. I was very interested in those people who Oscar meant the world to before he was shot,” he said.
“Once he was killed, everybody felt like they had ownership over this dude and they could say whatever they wanted about him whether they were on this side of the fence or that side of the fence. ‘Oscar Grant was this,’ ‘Oscar grant was that…’ ‘We’re doing this for Oscar Grant.’ For me, I’m like ‘who are the people who loved this dude before that? Who were the people who would be devastated if he didn’t make it home.’ I wanted to tell the story through that lens,” Coogler added.
Grant’s shooting by BART officer Johannes Mehserle was caught on videotape by passengers on the train that Grant and his friends were pulled off of by BART police following a fight on the train from San Francisco. Coogler says there probably wouldn’t have been a “Fruitvale Station” movie if the incident had not been taped and then shown on television, through cell phone messages and the Internet.
“That’s changed everything,” Coogler said.
“(It’s created) the ability to communicate with people en masse; the ability to see something and say ‘other people should see this.’ (It’s created) the ability of ordinary citizens to hold people, who are serving them, accountable.”
As an independent film, Coogler said he didn’t go into making his first feature-length film with commerce in mind, that he simply wanted to make “the best film he could.” “Fruitvale Station” was produced in part by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. Coogler says Whitaker believed in his vision for the film.
“I was honest with him. I just told him why I wanted to make this film, I told him about the situation, I told him the style I wanted to make it in, the scope of it and how I thought it would be,how I thought it would work and he was interested in hearing all those things. He heard all those things and said ‘let’s do it.’”
“Fruitvale Station” has received critical acclaim, winning prestigious awards at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. There’s also Oscar buzz.
While Coogler would only say that he’s got a few projects in the works, he’s said to be teaming up with “Fruitvale Station” lead actor Jordan again for “Creed” a continuation of the “Rocky” franchise that focuses on the Apollo Creed character’s grandson.
“Fruitvale Station” opens in wide release today, Friday, July 26.
By: Genoa Barrow
Senior Staff Writer