When the life of 22-year-old Oscar Grant was taken before all of our eyes in 2009, many of us remained stunned, outraged and then, subdued. But not Ryan Coogler. The 26-year-old filmmaker, also a Bay area native like Grant, could not shake the images of Grant being shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle out of his head. He had to tell the story. What unfolded was a series of meetings with the Grant family, support from actor Forrest Whittaker's production company, the Grand Jury Prize and Audience award at Sundance, and a two-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.
Fruitvale Station, which will be released this week at select theaters, portrays the last 24 hours of Grant's brief, often complicated life. EBONY chatted with Coogler about the film and Grant's story.
EBONY: The Oscar Grant story is a well-known event that sparked national outrage. What inspired you to tackle this real life tragedy by portraying it in a film?
COOGLER: It was an event in itself. Seeing the footage in the Bay and being moved, angered and scared by it made me realize I wanted to do a film on it. The reason I got into making movies was to tell stories about our humanity that aren't normally told, and offer insight to what makes people, people. Art is a way to get out all of those feelings, and once I saw the footage, it was a natural idea to make a movie about it. After the things shed about Grant on both sides, with people saying he was a horrible person and then others who said he was a saint, I saw the tragedy in it all, and that the real people who knew and loved him were glossed over.
EBONY: Is there a particular aspect of Oscar Grant's life that mirrors your own?
COOGLER: Yea. He was close with his mom like I am, and cared a lot about his family. He had different relationships with his friends vs. family and each of those relationships influenced him differently. Oscar's father was incarcerated, but he had a relationship with him through that barrier. That experience is different from my own. Also, just being young and black and from the Bay– there are so many commonalities that come out of that.
EBONY: What was your relationship with his family like during the project and how did they react to the film?
COOGLER: I had to go his family and ask permission first before we signed over the film. The first time I met them, I was a little nervous, but having Forrest Whittaker's company helped me. Once they signed over the story, it gave me access to do more personal interviews, and we became closer. The film was interesting to them because it took them back to one of the worst times of their lives. It also deals with a lot of struggles that Oscar had; the fact that he was incarcerated and struggling were elements that were difficult for them to watch, and understandably so. In the end, they were very positive about the film, though.
EBONY: Sadly, we see tragedies like Grant continuing to happen all around the country. What kind of impact do you hope the film has on raising the level of conversation or action against injustices like the Grant injustice?
COOGLER: I hope that the film will inspire dialogue in our communities, as well as in communities that aren't as marginalized. I hope that it inspires an internal thought process on how we treat the people that we love the most and the people that we don't know, and why there's a difference there. I hope it makes people think about people like Oscar, who are dying at a rapid rate on our streets and it's accepted, because there's something inherently wrong with that. Our lives matter. No matter who we are liked by, it doesn't make it any less tragic.
EBONY: You work with incarcerated youth in San Francisco. What sparked your interest in that?
COOGLER: My dad has worked as a counselor in juvenile hall for most of my life, so when I turned 21, I started working there. It was something my dad always did, so I would spend time there. Working with youth is something I'm passionate about because I have younger cousins and two little brothers. I inherited it as a family job and I find it to be really amazing. It's difficult though because you do a lot of things on a day to day basis with kids that are the products of the failure of our society and the adults that came before them. It's tough to see that, but also a really rewarding job any time you are working with youth.
EBONY: Steven Spielberg recently announced that Hollywood is facing an implosion. What is your response to that and advice to young filmmakers of color who find it particularly hard to break into the industry?
COOGLER: Make projects that are you are personally passionate about, and other people will see that passion and believe in it too. Going to film festivals and seeing all of the established and up and coming filmmakers, the one thing I saw in common was that they were passionate about their work. I really look forward to whatever the future of cinema holds. I think it will be exciting and positive.
EBONY: What projects are you working on next?
COOGLER: Right now, I'm focused on marketing this film. I'm trying to get as many people to see it as possible. Then, we'll see what's next.