Ryan Coogler is the writer/filmmaker responsible for the tear-jerking independent feature, Fruitvale Station. The 27-year-old Oakland native with a serious Bay Area accent earned the coveted Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Coogler’s directorial debut also garnered Prize of the Future at Cannes Film Festival.
Fruitvale Station, produced by Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker and Academy Award winning supporting actress Octavia Spencer, dramatizes the final 24 hours of the life of Oakland native Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan). On New Year’s Day 2009, Grant was shot and killed while handcuffed and face down on the Bay Area Rapid Train (BART) platform by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle . Fruitvale Station also co-stars Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer who brilliantly play Grant’s girlfriend and mother.
Grant’s untimely death was recorded by a myriad of train passengers’ cell phone cameras. Grant, 22, was also the father of a five-year old daughter Tatiana Grant (played by Ariana Neal).
Coogler, then working security at a nightclub, was home on Christmas break when Grant was gunned down. Coogler, who still holds a day job as a youth counselor at San Francisco Juvenile Hall, says “It gives you an incredible perspective seeing the things human beings deal with. Those kids are some of the strongest people I know,” says Coogler.
Sitting at the head of a conference table, the USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus consistently holds his head down but still makes eye contact. Despite what appears to be an awkward shyness, Coogler’s words demonstrate that he is one of this generation’s leading filmmakers.
“Artists work from places that are close to their heart. Filmmakers make stuff they’re passionate about. I hope to stay true to that. I don’t think I’m sparking anything honestly. It’s therapeutic dealing with things that I have questions about, things I don’t understand or things I feel hopeless about,” says Coogler.
The former St. Mary’s College and Sacramento State student found filmmaking after one of his professors read one of his essays. Also a wide receiver on full scholarships, football and filmmaking couldn’t have been more similar to Coogler. “Filmmaking is the most team-oriented sport I know. You’re engaging with so many people, you have an idea exactly what teamwork is,” says Coogler.
With three award-winning short films – Locks (2009) , Fig (2011) and The Sculptor (2011) – to his credit, Coogler spent several months reviewing court documents and spending time with Grant’s family and loved ones. “It’s hard — especially independent films. You never have enough of the things you need the most: time and money. We had to get in and get out. Anytime we shot at institutional locations, each place and community was real gracious to open up to us,” he says. Coogler admits to shooting some of Fruitvale Station’s scenes in his grandmother’s home. He wrote the script at Sundance Screenwriters Lab already with Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant, in mind.
He was also convinced that Spencer wouldn’t join the cast. The actress, however, helped Coogler raise more funds to cast other roles. “Casting a film is one of the most important decisions a director can make. Actors are the vehicles that move the stories through. If you can lose yourself in a great movie or align yourself to the characters, it feels like humanity” says Coogler.
Grant’s family also fully embraced Coogler’s vision. “I wanted to humanize and tell the story from the perspective of the people who knew him best. [Oscar] was a different person with different people. I hope people see a little of themselves in the characters,” says Coogler.
Even as Fruitvale Station’s massive success continues on, a humbled Coogler believes that his only objective from the start was to create dialogue about humanity. “It was about getting the story told and getting it out there. I didn’t want to make it for comparisons, accolades or to further my career. I’m honored anytime it happens. I don’t concern myself with that,” says Coogler.
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.