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With ‘Fruitvale Station,’ director tells story close to his heart
“Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 fatal shooting of an unarmed 22-year-old black man by transit police in Oakland, Calif., is the first feature film from director Ryan Coogler, 27, an Oakland native who seeks to show the humanity of a marginalized population.
AP Entertainment Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ryan Coogler is back on the University of Southern California campus for the first time since becoming one of the country’s most promising young filmmakers, and he heads straight to the camera-rental center where he worked as a student. He runs into a former classmate, who high-fives and congratulates him, then asks for a photo. Coogler sheepishly obliges.
“This is inspiring, right here!” the younger man says as he snaps an iPhone shot of himself and Coogler. “Thank you, bro!”
Coogler gives the student his email address, then looks for his old boss, the equipment manager, who tells the 27-year-old filmmaker that he’s set a new standard for success at USC’s film school, which counts Ron Howard and George Lucas as alumni.
There’s no doubt he has. Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” — his first dramatic feature and first project since graduating with a master’s degree in 2011 — won both jury and audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival, where The Weinstein Company outbid a dozen studios to distribute it. The film opens Friday. Oscar buzz has already begun.
But nothing like that was on Coogler’s mind when he decided to make the film. A native of Oakland, Calif., he was home for Christmas break during his first year at film school when 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot by transit police in the city’s Fruitvale station on New Year’s Eve, 2009. Scores of witnesses filmed the fatal shooting of the unarmed black man by white officer Johannes Mehserle on their cellphones, and riots and protests exploded in Oakland and around the country. (Mehserle was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years behind bars.)
Coogler was also in his early 20s then, looked like Grant and came from the same neighborhood. It could have been him that night, he thought.
“I wanted to do something that could potentially have a proactive effect, that could maybe trigger a thought process or a discussion that could possibly prevent things like this from happening in the future,” he said. “And I thought a film could be effective in proving this person’s humanity.”
It’s that drive, along with Coogler’s talent, that caught the eye of USC professor Jed Dannenbaum, who contacted producer Nina Yang Bongiovi, telling her there’s someone she had to meet.
She met with Coogler, and he gave her some short films he’d made at school. She watched them immediately and told collaborator Forest Whitaker, who had been seeking a young artist to mentor, that they just had to work with him.
After signing on with Whitaker’s Significant Productions, the filmmaker approached Grant’s family in the same humble, openhearted way he dealt with his classmates at USC.
The film shows Grant’s struggles with his girlfriend and his prison past; his illuminating love for his young daughter and desire to be a good dad; his devotion to his mom and grandmother; his penchant for drug dealing and angry outbursts; and how much he meant to those closest to him.
“Fruitvale” is a dramatization based on court documents, cellphone footage and extensive interviews with Grant’s family and friends.
Michael B. Jordan, best known for his work on “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” embodies his first leading role as the charming and conflicted Grant. Grant’s mother is played by Octavia Spencer, who also hopped on board as a producer, securing financing from investors including “The Help” author Kathryn Stockett.
That the Trayvon Martin case is playing out while this film hits theaters underscores the need for more stories like this, Coogler said.
“People who look like Oscar, who look like Trayvon, are dying every day on the streets of our country — not only being shot by a police officer or not only being shot by somebody using vigilante tactics, but oftentimes being shot by someone that looks just like them,” he said. “These lives matter, and we shouldn’t just stand by while this is happening.”