Director, actor strive to honor Oscar Grant in 'Fruitvale Station'
When he heard the news of the tragic death of Oscar Grant, aspiring filmmaker Ryan Coogler knew he had to act but was unsure how to go about it.
"I'm from the Bay Area, and things like that just don't happen there. He was a young man, he was one of us and I couldn't just stand by," Coogler said.
His anxiety is understandable: Grant's death sparked a firestorm in Oakland after it occurred, prompting reform in the area's police department. All of this was justified as the young man, after being detained at the Fruitvale rapid transit station early on New Year's Day 2009, was shot in the back by a police officer before numerous witnesses, who recorded the incident on their cellphones.
The officer was later arrested and convicted of involuntary manslaughter; he served 11 months of a two-year sentence. His defense at his trial was that he thought he had grabbed his Taser, not his handgun, when he shot Grant.
Coogler's debut film, "Fruitvale Station," is his response to the events. It chronicles the last day in Grant's life, giving us a portrait of a flawed young man struggling to rebuild a life that was compromised by bad decisions and tough breaks.
Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant, were in Chicago recently, discussing the many pitfalls they faced in making the film and what they hope the movie's legacy might be.
While he was eager to tell Grant's story, Coogler knew that his No. 1 responsibility was to do right by the young man and his family. He spoke to family members and friends to get a sense of who Grant was.
"One thing that came across time and again was that Oscar was a social chameleon," Coogler said. "No matter who he was around, he made them feel better about themselves. He had that ability to help elevate others as far as their mood was concerned or how they perceived themselves. It's ironic that he couldn't do that for himself."
Coogler wasn't the only one who wanted to make a film about Grant, but a fortuitous set of circumstance put him in contact with the victim's family and gave him an advantage over other directors.
"I was in college, and a friend of mine who was a law student got a job at the law firm that was handling the civil case that the Grants filed," he said. "They needed someone to help organize all of the video evidence they had relating to the case, and my friend recommended me for the job.
"I was hired, eventually met Oscar's mother and girlfriend and ultimately was able to present them with my ideas for the film. I told them that I wanted to present Oscar as he really was — warts and all — and assured them that they would have a hand in what was included in the film."
Coogler was able to convince not only the Grants, but also Oscar-winning actor Forrest Whitaker to take a hand in the project.
On the basis of his student films, he was able to get a meeting with Whitaker, who was so impressed with the young man that he agreed to back the project through his production company.
As the film picked up steam, Coogler began to think of the vital decision he had in casting the lead role, There were many viable candidates, but he had his eye on Jordan from the start.
Though only 26, the actor has amassed an impressive array of credits, having come to prominence as the young street hustler Wallace in HBO's groundbreaking series "The Wire," as well as having key roles in NBC's "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" and last year's sleeper superhero hit "Chronicle."
Jordan knew that a huge responsibility rested on his shoulders: honoring Grant's memory.
"I talked a lot to Oscar's family, especially his girlfriend Sophina," Jordan said. "I wasn't really looking for a key moment in his life to focus on, I just wanted to get a sense from them of not only Oscar's positive qualities but his negative ones as well.
"The one thing I kept in mind as we made the film was that his daughter was going to see the movie one day, and I wanted to give as accurate a portrayal as possible."
What became obvious to both Coogler and Jordan was that in exposing Grant's negative qualities, they might play into commonly held perceptions of young black men.
"Some people still hold onto stereotypes," Coogler said. "They learn that Grant dealt drugs, and that's all they see. They think, 'He's a drug dealer; he wouldn't brush his teeth with his daughter in the morning; members of his family wouldn't tell each other that they love each other.'
"I wanted to make sure to include these scenes because they were true and present Oscar as he was — which was a young man who did the best he could in the situation he was in."
Said Jordan: "People forget that the environment Oscar was in was a dangerous one, that it was a place where if you made a mistake it could be a matter of life or death. We all make mistakes when we're 17 or 22, but many of us are able to do that in a less stressful environment.
"In Oscar's case, he didn't get a chance to learn from his mistakes and do better."
If "Fruitvale Station" is able to shed light on the daily trials young men like Grant face, it will have, in some small way, taken a step toward helping others empathize with their plight and perhaps foster greater understanding for those in a tough situation through no fault of their own.