For his debut feature film, writer-director Ryan Coogler chose the true story of Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), a young father in Oakland, California who was shot and killed by transit police just minutes into New Year’s Day, 1999. The shooting — seen in cell phone-captured footage — sparked riots and protests, but Coogler saw instead an opportunity to share Grant’s story with the world.
How did you go about approaching this story and making the presentation of Oscar as accurate as possible?
I had access to the public record documents from the trial, and that was what I based my first draft of the script off of, just tracing the events, tracing the character from that aspect. The next thing I had access to was the family. I had an open door with them. What I really wanted to do was to tell the story through the scope of the people that knew him the best, and on that day there was a lot of domesticity to his day, a lot of time spent with his girl, his daughter and his mom. I wanted to get to his character really through those relationships.
How about the decision to open the film with the actual cell phone footage from the incident?
My intention was to not show the footage ever in the film, but it had come up with my editors. I was really apprehensive about doing it and I realized the reason why was because I didn’t need it. Because I’m from the Bay Area, I’d seen the footage so much, I didn’t need to see it. But they were saying how they didn’t know about this until they started to work on this project, and they thought it would be important to let the audience see what happened to him. And once we did it I realized that it played into a lot of the themes that went into making the film, the themes of proximity and how the movie’s about how something that happens to someone can effect you differently when you know the person versus when you don’t.
It’s interesting how all the decisions that put Oscar on that train are made by other people in his life.
It was something that came up in research, in talking to his family members because each one of them kind of blamed themselves for Oscar winding up on that train, winding up in that situation. [His mother] Wanda talked about how she recommend they take BART as opposed to driving, and Sofina talked about how Oscar didn’t even want to go. He wanted to stay home that night because he was feeling kind of out of it, and she kind of pushed on him to get out and move about.
Travel via cinema
With the success of “Fruitvale Station” on the festival circuit, writer-director Ryan Coogler is seeing the world thanks to his films, but it used to be thanks to the films of others. “The first time I left the country was for a film festival when I was 21 years old,” Coogler explains. “I would use film as a way to travel and a way to have experiences that I would never be able to have in the physical sense.”
All that international viewing helped shape his view on humanity — for the better, he says. “I found out that I had a lot in common with people that came up in Romania or people that came up in France,” Coogler explains. “I figured that being a human being is being a human being, no matter where you are or what you look like. We all have so much in common, and that insight would often trigger empathy in me. I think the storytelling in filmmaking has that incredible power.”