"Fruitvale Station": How a 27-Year-Old Rookie Filmmaker Humanized an American Tragedy

Humanizing Oscar Grant

There was no way for Ryan Coogler to ignore the Oscar Grant tragedy back in January 2009. The similarities between the budding filmmaker and Grant were numerous: They were the same age at the time, 22, from the same San Francisco Bay Area, hung out with the same kinds of kids, and regularly used the BART. When Coogler first heard about Grant's death, and then watched the startling YouTube footage, he couldn't help but think about Grant's family and friends—how badly must they be hurting after this horrible thing happened? Coogler could only imagine how his own loved ones would react if he'd been the one to get shot on that BART platform.

Before the Fruitvale Station explosion of publicity, appearances, and Weinstein-backed baby-kissing, Coogler worked as a counselor at a San Francisco juvenile hall (a job he still holds, though with less on-site frequency). He's also made three short films—Locks (which played at the Tribeca Film Festival), Gap, and Fig (the recipient of an HBO Short Filmmaking Award and a DGA Student Filmmaker Award)—rooted in the human condition, about people from his own real world that don't often get fair shakes. Fig, for instance, follows a young female prostitute who's trying to end her sexual street-corner profession in order to properly raise her daughter.

In Oscar Grant, Coogler saw a flawed young man who was also a loving father, a well-meaning boyfriend, and a warm-hearted son. Most people who read the newspaper reports, however, couldn't get past the facts that Grant was also a drug dealer and wore baggy jeans and black hoodies. Fruitvale Station is about breaking through those surface-level perceptions.

Coogler: "I've been working in a juvenile hall for the last six years. That job has had more of an effect on me than anything else. I've been doing that since I was 21, but over the past year, because of this film, I haven't been able to work in there as much as I'd like to. When I'm there, though, it's important for me to let the kids know that they don't have to give up, that they're just as worthy of life's good things as people on the outside. They just have to find it within themselves to earn those things. That's what Oscar Grant realized, but unfortunately he wasn't able to see that through."

"When this tragedy happened, I was the same age as Oscar. I had such a close proximity to it. I've been in similar circumstances before. My friends look like his friends; I actually cast my friends to play his friends in the film. That was the initial attraction to the subject for me. Then I started seeing the fallout afterwards, and how people were making Oscar into this fallen icon."

Michael B. Jordan: "There wasn't even a second of hesitation when this project came my way. I knew I had to do it. I remember when this happened, and how helpless I felt, how I couldn't express myself the way I wanted to. Then a few years later, the whole Trayvon Martin thing happened, and I was feeling upset. I was like, 'Man, again?' I wanted to express myself but I didn't really know how to. Literally a week afterwards, I get the call making the Oscar Grant story, and I remember thinking, wow, this is fate. This is exactly what I need. I felt a certain responsibility to take this role, so I had to take it."

"I was surprised by Ryan's take. It's genius, the more I think about it, to approach this story as "a day in the life of…" It's always easy to judge somebody that you don't know, but if you walk a mile in somebody's shoes, you'll get to know that person a little bit better. You'll know how it feels. A day in the life of, the last 24 hours—sometimes I feel like that's a little bit more compelling than movies that take place over four or five years of a person's life. You really grow fond of somebody in a day. Spend a whole day with somebody, be a part of their daily routine—by the end of the day, you'll really get to know what that person is like and get to know their character."

"Ryan's script was incredible. I remember crying the first time reading it; I still have the tear stains on the pages of my script. I waited 20, 30 minutes before reading it again, and I cried again the second time, just as much."

Coogler: "Some people wanted to make him out to be this saint, this perfect person, this activist who was slaughtered, but on the other side, other people wanted to use the bad things he did to say hurtful things about who he was and people like him. They'd call him a thug and a criminal. He cheated on his girl, he sold drugs. But none of those things made him deserve the death penalty, not in my book. He was a human being. Everybody has made mistakes. He didn't deserve to die."

Jordan: "The thing that stand out to the most about this story, and Ryan's script, to me, is the tragedy itself. The loss of life, and thinking about the fact that, if this wasn't caught on camera, then what would have happened? Would it have even been a thing?"

Melonie Diaz: "Ryan's script hit me hard. It was about second chances, and trying to do the right thing. That's the most heartbreaking thing about this story. He was at this point where he was going to move forward with his family and try to be a better man, but then this happened. That's what I always leave the film thinking: What kind of man would he have been?"

Coogler: "It was really about that in-between, and nobody was really looking at the true tragedy of the situation. Oscar was a human being, with people he loved and who loved him, and he had big hopes and dreams of becoming a better man, but he was robbed of that opportunity. That's what I wanted to get across. The most important person in his life was the person who was affected by his death the most: his daughter, Tatiana. She's still here. She turned 9 a couple of months ago. She has to grow up without a dad."

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