Date with destiny: Ryan Coogler's 'Fruitvale Station' revisits a San Francisco New Year's Eve tragedy


Fruitvale, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train station in Oakland, Calif., was the last stop in the life of Oscar Grant. His 22 years extended mere minutes into 2009. A San Francisco transit cop, scuffling with him and other cuffed African-Americans males on the platform, shot and killed Grant, later testifying he meant to use his Taser.

Fruitvale Station, the Sundance triumph that starts dipping into the marketplace in limited release on July 12 via The Weinstein Company, begins with that bang, and it’s a very authentic bang—this being a subway passenger’s raw video footage, which subsequently went viral on YouTube and triggered a very heated, divisive cause célèbre in Northern California.

“Yeah, that’s the actual footage taken that night by Tommy Cross,” admits Ryan Coogler, who directed the rest of the film in the same frenzied, handheld documentary fashion. “He was an Oakland resident who was on the train that night. It was horrifying, man, for anybody who saw it. It sparked an emotion in me.”

“This was a very well-known incident in the Bay Area, very highly charged and very highly covered. People rallied and rioted about it. The Oakland port was shut down. The reason it resonated with me was I was there in the Bay Area when it happened.”

On this particular New Year’s Eve, Coogler was working as a security guard at a rave in the area and did not hear of the Fruitvale incident until it was reported on the news and, everlastingly, on YouTube as a kind of rallying cry against racial profiling.

The debuting writer-director, being the same age (22) and race as the victim, empathized so strongly with the situation that he chose for his first feature to rewind the clock on Dec. 31, 2008, and show what Oscar Grant’s last day was like right up until his own inevitably fateful and fatal Appointment in Samarra.

It is somewhat of a partisan report, and at times Grant looms a little like Jesus-with-a-rap-sheet, cramming his final hours full of good works—tending a dog struck by a car, showering quality time on his four-year-old daughter, plotting a birthday party for his mom. All these may be on Grant’s record, but all in the last day? Really?

“It’s a compilation of days,” Coogler concedes, “but most of what you see in the film is based on what he did in that last day. Some of it is dramatic license, of course, but I don’t see him as saintly. He’s still smoking marijuana. His girl’s mad at him for having an affair. He’s human. He has flaws, like everybody else—and he has hope.”

It was a senseless death, no doubt about it, and that feeling only deepens with Coogler’s depiction of a good man trying to better himself, to lift himself out of the rut which he has been forced into because of race, poverty and social dismissal.

“There are two things I find about this case,” Grant’s cinematic Boswell points out. “People are used to scenes that look like Oscar is doing really awful, awful things the whole film. Then, after you see him doing all-negative things, when you see him doing normal things, they look like they’re super-good. It’s because of what he looks like that people think that. Also, some people have preexisting views about the case.

“A lot of this stems from assumptions one makes from how certain people are portrayed. For many people, their only contact with somebody like Oscar—with any young African-American male—is through the media. They live in an area where there aren’t any people like that. The only images they get are through the media. How are people represented in the media? What do those guys look like? What do they do? What kind of people are they? A lot of times, a dehumanization happens.”

If Coogler erred, he at least erred on the side of the angels. There is a vicious counterargument about Grant’s character, and his jail time for possession with intent to sell drugs and possession of a firearm is cited. Grant is shown in prison, but the reason is blurred. It seems to be only mentioned because it was his first real exposure to racially baiting whites, and that mindset may have sped his death.

“When this happened back in 2009, I thought it was topical then,” says Cooger. “These issues don’t go away, ever.” (Paging Paula Deen and George Zimmerman.)

The film was produced “for under $1 million” by Significant Pictures, Forest Whitaker’s company, which would seem to be light years away from Coogler—but wasn’t: “When I was at USC film school, a professor of mine—Jed Dannenbaum—recommended me to Nina Yang Bongiovi, who’s Forest’s VP of production.

“During my last year of film school, I met with her and discussed some projects I was working on, and she decided it would be good for me to sit down and talk with Forest, so I came in and met with him one day between classes. I was excited to meet him—he was one of my personal heroes—and he said he wanted to produce it.”

In short order, Whitaker secured an agency for Coogler, and that agency just happened to have an Oscar-winning actress who would be perfect for Grant’s mom: The Help’s Octavia Spencer. “I thought it was crazy because of her track record and her recent success,” Coogler sheepishly confesses. “I didn’t think she’d make a film this small. But Forest has the same agent as her, and the agent was optimistic, so we turned over the script to him, and we got a call back, saying she wanted to do it.”

Her participation quickly raised another question: How does a novice director sculpt Spencer’s sizeable talent into the grieving Wanda Grant? Coogler’s answer was, simply, to let it happen and not get in the way. “I was there for her,” he asserts. “I gave her as much space and care as she needed. That’s all you can ever do for an actor. We talked. I gave her material. She had access to Wanda, who loved what she did.”

Encouraged by this casting coup, Coogler set his sights on Michael B. Jordan, who was on the hunt for a star-making shot after his success on “Friday Night Lights” and “The Wire.” “I responded to his work on those shows. When I was working on the script, two of his movies came out—Chronicle and Red Tails—so I got to see more of what he could do. I knew he was our guy, in many ways, and I started writing the script with him in mind. It was his first leading role, and I was honored to do that.”

Despite this cinematic rush of excitement, Coogler hasn’t surrendered his day job—counseling incarcerated and at-risk youth at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall—although getting his movie to market has eaten up his time and it has been months since he clocked in. Once all of that is cleared up, what will he do next? “Hopefully,” he says, meaning ideally, “I’ll be working on a movie. I’m sorting all that out right now.”

Giving credence to that hope are the trophies he picked up at Sundance: the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film and the Audience Award for Dramatic Film.

Last month, the Sundance Institute presented him its Vanguard Award—which, a year earlier, went to Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Benh Zeitlin and boosted him to Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Coogler rose to some eloquence when he stepped to the platform to receive the Vanguard Award. “I am a storyteller,” he said. “Cinema is a format of telling a story that is so immersive that it works like no other medium, and, through that storytelling process, human beings are able to connect with other human beings that they otherwise would never have come in contact with in their entire lives. That’s why supporting filmmakers who may have different perspectives is so important.”

Connecting the story to the audience is his highest hope for Fruitvale Station. “It’s about a very specific area and based on a specific person. I wanted to look at his relationships—that’s where people exist the most. I hope that people from different backgrounds—if they watch our film—will see a little bit of themselves in it.”