I can remember, back in January of 2009, starting the New Year as many do with new goals set, new expectations for myself, and the feeling of a fresh start. Then several days later, I was one of many persons who viewed a terrible tragedy on a YouTube video. It was a haunting and poignant reminder of how precious life is and how sudden it can be taken. I’m of course referring to the death of 22-years-old Oscar Grant III, who was murdered on January 1st, 2009 by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit District) police officer at the now infamous Fruitvale subway stop in Oakland, CA. Oscar was removed from the train by BART officers, after he fought with rivals, and was shot in the back while lying face down on the train platform.
Among those persons who viewed the video was then 22-year-old film student Ryan Coogler, who explained in promotional materials that the event itself and the subsequent aftermath inspired him to make FRUITVALE STATION. “During the trial I saw how the situation became politicized: depending on which side of the political fence people stood on, Oscar was either cast as a saint who had never done anything wrong in his life, or he was painted as a monster who got what he deserved that night. I felt that in that process, Oscar’s humanity was lost. When anyone’s life is lost, the true nature of the tragedy lies in who they were to the people that knew him or her the best.”
Spawned by Coogler’s passion to share Oscar’s story with humanity, and with Academy-award winners Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Octavia Spencer (The Help) signed on as producers (with Spencer also portraying Grant’s mother in the film), “Fruitvale Station” has taken audiences and critics by storm, winning awards at both the Cannes and Sundance festivals. I had the fortunate opportunity to sit down with, the now 27-year-old, Ryan Coogler who visited Philadelphia with his beautiful fiancée, Zinzi, for a press tour back in June.
I know you are a counselor at Juvenile Hall (in San Francisco). If you were watching the film with the kids you work with, what is the one thing you would want them to take from the story?
The fact that they, and people like them, have something to live for. And the idea that if their lives are cut short, their loved ones feel the consequences, as well as others that they may not know or those that they may have had conflict.
I was one of the persons who viewed one of the videotapes not long after the tragedy occurred. And I was amazed at how much I wanted Oscar to succeed in this journey (you explored in the film) even though I knew he wouldn’t. What has been the most surprising, or gratifying, reaction you’ve received to the movie so far?
It is two things. When audience members share they’ve never heard of the case, and I think it’s amazing that you can do some work and it enlightens even one person about an event. And the other is when people come up to me, usually people of different backgrounds, and say that they will never look at a case or headline about somebody like Oscar the same again.
I was curious about the scenes with the woman (Katie) at the fish market, and the web designer (Pete) he met. Were those characters representatives of people he met or actual people?
They are representatives. The character Katie is a combo of two real people. The fish market scene really happened. And there was a white woman Oscar had met earlier that day (New Year’s Eve), who was at BART and recognized him before the fight. She taped the altercation on the train platform, took the video immediately to the family at the hospital, and also testified in court about what she saw.
Coogler’s story of Oscar Grant and Grant’s journey on what would be his last day is nothing short of amazing storytelling. The film captures the audience at the shocking first scene; and yes I will go off script with this spoiler: the opening scene is one of the videotapes from January 1st, 2009 so be prepared. And the film leaves you breathless through the ending scene, which is nothing if not heartbreaking. Michael B. Jordan (Red Tails, Friday Night Lights) gives a riveting performance as Oscar Grant III, and I cannot see him or Coogler nomination-less next award season. And Octavia Spencer is just dramatic gold in her on-screen portrayal of Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson.
“Fruitvale Station” opened last Friday in select theaters in both NY and LA, is being released in additional theaters (including Philadelphia) this Friday, July 19, and will open nationwide on Friday, July 26. On the heels of the Zimmerman verdict, and simply on its own merit, Fruitvale is a MUST SEE. To find showtimes and theaters in an area near you, click here. You can also get additional information about Oscar Grant and the Oscar Grant Foundation by clicking here.
I am really looking forward to reading your comments after you see this magnificent film. Until next thought family, Thomasena