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New film: Fruitvale Station – includes interview with Ryan Coogler

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler makes author Tony Sheppard seem marginally less under-dressed by taking off his jacket.

Fruitvale Station
Written & Directed by Ryan Coogler

Soon after 2am, on January 1st, 2009, Oscar Grant was shot in the back on the platform of the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s Fruitvale Station. What set this apart from many middle of the night, urban shootings, was that the shooter was a BART police officer and that the incident was captured on multiple cell phone cameras.

“Fruitvale Station” is the brilliant debut feature of writer/director Ryan Coogler, recreating the last day in the life of Oscar Grant. It does this with an even handed approach, based on multiple testimonies, and captures both positive and negative aspects of his life. Grant had a background that involved prison time and dealing marijuana, but on that night he was simply traveling home with friends after celebrating the New Year in San Francisco.

The film won both the Grand Jury and Audience Prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and Coogler won the ‘Un Certain Regard – Avenir Prize’ at Cannes. Of special note to Sacramento area readers and film goers, Coogler began his film studies at Sacramento State, before attending the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. His student films at USC have also won multiple awards.

I spoke with Ryan about his film and about the larger social issues that his film relates to.

Tony: Occasionally, accountants and actuaries will compile lists of the most dangerous occupations, but it seems to me that the most dangerous thing to be in America is a young black man, growing up in an urban environment. To what extent have you shared that experience or how much did that aspect of this story hit home to you?

Ryan: I think that that assessment holds a lot of weight. I’ve learned recently that the leading cause of death for people my age, for young African American males is homicide – which is a heartbreaking statistic to hear. And that’s something that we all live with – it’s something that crosses your mind often – the fact that there’s a high likelihood of being killed, of being shot. The craziest part about it is the idea of safety – the idea that we don’t have it. The idea that the people we should feel safest around, our own people, you know what I mean – other young African American males and also the police – the people you’d think we’d be alright around, we’re not – they’re the people most likely to hurt us.

Tony: Without getting too much into the Trayvon Martin case, I had been having an argument with somebody recently who wanted to know why Trayvon Martin hadn’t simply called the police if he felt threatened.

<Ryan laughs.>

Tony: And I was trying to convince this person that if you’re a young and black and male in America, you don’t call the cops, that’s not likely to be a default assumption like it was for me when I was a kid.

Ryan: No. No. No it’s not.

Tony: They’re people to be avoided.

Ryan: Yeah. Because … yeah. That’s absolutely true – it’s a different relationship. I have two editors, one’s from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a Latina woman – and the other is from North Providence, Rhode Island, a white guy, a little older than me. He told me when we working on the film – and they lived in Oakland, they lived in East Oakland while they edited the film, in a small tenement built on top of another house, we lived there and edited there – and he talked about that. He said “Wow!” – that the relationship the people here have with the police is completely different from our reality. We’re taught early on that the police aren’t your friend. We’re taught early on that when you’re pulled over you have to be extra careful – make sure you don’t make any sudden movements, make sure you wait until they ask for your wallet. That’s the relationship African American males have with the police.

Tony: And I was taught to just stop a police officer and ask for the time.

Ryan: Right, right.

Tony: President Obama got mixed reactions when he commented on the Trayvon Martin case, in particular saying that Martin could have been his son or himself 35 years ago. Did you find yourself seeing pictures of Oscar Grant, when the story broke, and thinking “That could have been me”?

Ryan: It wasn’t a picture for me, it was a video. It was a video of this guy being beaten and then shot.

Tony: The video was grainy….

Ryan: It was the graininess of the video that made think about that. Because what I could see in the video – I could see his complexion, I could see his build, I could see the clothes he was wearing, I could see the clothes his friends were wearing. It literally could have been me – if I was sitting in that spot at that time, I would look like that – in that graininess. So it was before a headshot, a picture of him, it was that video – seeing him killed like that.

Tony: Plus, it was in your backyard. [Coogler grew up in Oakland and Richmond.]

Ryan: It was in my backyard – he was the same age as me. We were both 22 at that time. If he were here today, we’d be the same age. So all of those things brings it to a closer proximity – and it’s interesting because for me, making this film was very much about proximity. It’s almost as if, when things happen, there’s a ripple effect – there are rings of separation to it. You know, if somebody from your family walked in here with news, that somebody passed away – if it’s somebody in your family, you’re going to have a completely different reaction than I’m going to have. You’re from the U.K., if I showed you an image of somebody your age from the U.K. and something happens to them – and if somebody brings another image in, of somebody my age that looks like me, an African American male from the Bay Area – and something happens, we’ll feel differently about that because it’s different separation.

Tony: With my age and looks, my accent and my glasses, I fear reading news that something bad has happened to Colin Firth!

<Ryan laughs again.>

Ryan: That’s funny!

Tony: There’s a way you were able to approach this case that you couldn’t with many others, because of the aspect of social media and because there were people standing there filming what happened. If this had been ten years earlier, this would have just been a bunch of people saying that the police shot an African American kid on the station at Fruitvale and people would have assumed he did something wrong. But because this was captured, it gave you a starting point and it gives your movie this authenticity – rather than just being another ‘he said, she said’ kind of story. How do you feel that social media and access to things to camera phones has changed the face of justice in America – or the world, after events like the Arab Spring? It almost impossible now to do something out in public, without somebody capturing it on video.

Ryan: What it’s become is almost like a nervous system, between people. It’s literally become that – to the point where what somebody sees can be transferred to somebody else miles away. One person can make several people witness to an event. I think it’s changed everything about how we live. I think it’s touched absolutely every area about humanity – and I think that justice, depending on what you refer to as justice, has changed along with everything else.

Tony: What do you think would have happened in the Oscar Grant case….

Ryan: If there had been no one…?

Tony: …if there had been no cell phones?

Ryan: Oh, wow – I have no idea… It would have been a very different situation.

Tony: There still would have been witnesses, but several of the kind of witnesses that tend to be dismissed by many people.

Ryan: Different people have different value. I mean if you talk about a police officer’s word in a court of law – police officers are part of the justice system. They’re an arm of that system – so their word is taken very highly. I think the question can be raised – how would others cases have been different if there had been somebody there to film?

Tony: It’s one of the interesting aspects of the Trayvon Martin case – that we’ve come to expect things to be caught on film and it wasn’t.
Ryan: When a film is absent, it becomes one party’s word against someone else’s – often times one party’s word against somebody who’s not even here to talk.

<At this point we were told we were running out of time.>

Tony: Let me ask you a totally different question: We’re obviously surrounded by film and media in general, and all the newer aspects of social media. When did you realize or decide that you could go from being a consumer of that content to being a creator of content? Perhaps, before you thought specifically about film – and long before you attended a prestigious graduate program – when did you first think of becoming a content creator?

Ryan: There was a very specific point when my mind shifted to thinking that filmmaking could be a reality for me. And that was when a professor recommended to me … when I was a freshman at St. Mary’s in the Bay Area … she read a writing assignment I did and she recommended I write screenplays, because she said my writing was very visual. At that point I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to be a positive influence on my community and I wanted to do things to help people. She said I could do the same thing by being a writer.

Tony: Do you see yourself as a social justice oriented filmmaker or do you just have stories you want to tell?

Ryan: For me, I’m very interested in telling stories that are close to my heart. And the stories that are close to my heart tend to be about characters that don’t often have a chance to have their stories told. I think the media is very powerful – you talked about us being surrounded by media in this day and age and people being content creators – you look at what people are doing on social media, and networking, with Instagram and Vine and Twitter – people are becoming their own content creators, everybody is, and it’s all being consumed. Especially filmmaking, which is the most immersive storytelling format there is, I think – what it really is, is the ability to provide new perspectives. And what I really love is providing perspectives – telling stories from angles that might not have a chance to be seen. So I hope to always do that – but I do love telling stories. I don’t look at myself as a social justice filmmaker at all – I’m a guy who wants to tell stories that are important to me.

In interesting timing, on the day after our interview, it was announced that Coogler will next tell a well known story, but from a new perspective, by writing and directing the next film in the “Rocky” franchise. This time it will be focused on the Grandson of Apollo Creed (to be played by Michael B. Jordan, who played Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale Station”), Rocky’s early nemesis, with Sylvester Stallone back as Rocky Balboa, in more of a mentor/trainer role.

Until then, starting today, you can watch “Fruitvale Station” and witness what impressed the judges and audience at Sundance and Cannes. It’s a fantastic debut film from a local filmmaker and a sign of good things to come.
 

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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