He doesn’t talk about it much, but both before and while he was making his first feature film, Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler was also working as a youth guidance counselor at a juvenile hall in San Francisco. He was part counselor, part security guard at the home for troubled Bay Area youths, and even after sweeping the awards at last winter’s Sundance and being catapulted into the rarified air of acclaimed young filmmakers, Coogler, now 27, is still employed at the juvie center across from his hometown of Oakland. These days, even though he hasn’t worked there in a while because he’s been promoting his movie, he says, “I can’t wait to try and get back.”
Fruitvale Station, which won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, is about the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. Grant was the 22-year-old Oakland kid who on New Year’s Eve 2009 was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer in a guilty-until-proven-innocent power-trip scuffle that was caught on cell phone video and sparked local riots. Grant, played in a star-making turn by former Friday Night Lights standout Michael B. Jordan, had been in and out of jail and was trying his best to get his shit together, with a mother (played by Octavia Spencer), girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), and young daughter he adored waiting for him on the straight and narrow path.
It’s likely that no one else could have made a movie as honest, intuitive, and gut-punch devastating about Grant as Coogler, whose life has played out like a mirror image of his subject’s tragically shortened one.
Ask Coogler what he was like in high school, and he shakes his head, smiles, and says, “I didn’t have anything figured out.” Crack open his St. Mary’s College High School yearbooks (class of 2003) and you’ll find that he’s being more than modest; he was the star captain of the football team, elected to the homecoming court, and voted the guy with the best smile and physique.
We’re sitting in a Midtown hotel, the latest stop on the tour to promote his film, which starts a rolling release on Friday. The yearbook, which I procured from a friend who happens to be one of his former classmates, is a surprise blast from the past. “This is intense, man,” he says, laughing. “I don’t even remember this stuff.”
Looking at those pages, Coogler’s face lights up, he calls in his fiancée, Zinzi, and they giggle at the throwbacks; he waves off awards he had long forgotten and quickly moves on to discussing some of the other kids in the photos, high school teammates and buddies that he actually cast as Oscar’s friends in the movie. He points out Kenny Grimm, who played Grant’s dreadlocked pal Jason, and then one of his female classmates, whose 5-year-old son Coogler met at a 4th of July barbecue last week.
Between Oakland and his other childhood home in nearby Richmond, he’s got a lot of friends, and he has no plans of ever leaving — the place will never leave him, either.
As Diaz says, “He was like a kid on a playground” while making the movie.
Coogler and Grant were the same age when the BART shooting went down, and one of the filmmaker’s first thoughts when he heard about it was, “That could have been me.” If growing up gave him a sense of what can happen to disadvantaged youth from the outside, the job at the juvenile detention center showed him what kind of insanity goes down inside the legal system. There are kids as young as 7 at the center, since there’s just one catchall jail for juvenile convicts in the city. “If you steal candy, you can get arrested and come there. If you’ve killed three or four people, you come there,” he says.
As a youth guidance counselor, he’s got a dozen jobs in one.
“We’re the people that have close contact with the kids. We’re people who are right there with them when they wake up, we’re making sure that they’re taking care of their chores, their responsibilities with hygiene, keeping their areas clean and go to school and making sure they eat, making sure they go to the nurse and all that stuff,” Coogler explains, rattling off the long list of responsibilities as though he’s still on the job.
“We’re also there to talk with them. We’re not psychiatrists or psychologists, they have those,” he adds. “We’re there to talk to them. We’re there for support. We’re basically the adult presence in their lives. And we also have to keep them safe.”
Coogler says that’s the kind of stuff that made him want to make a movie about Oscar Grant. It was the thought that maybe he could make an impact on the way people view urban kids and the criminal justice system; maybe, Coogler thought, he could refocus the outrage and media coverage that arises when an unarmed young black kid like Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin is gunned down in a scuffle that arose simply because he’s a young black kid. “It’s something that I felt comes out of a lot of misconceptions and a lot of perceptions and perspectives,” he explains.
Oakland rioted after Grant was killed and the cell phone video of the incident surfaced, and then again when the former BART officer who shot him, Johannes Mehserle, was released less than halfway through his two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.
“The Bay Area is a very politically charged place,” says Coogler. “It’s a place that’s overwhelmingly liberal in many ways, and I think that’s why when this happened to Oscar, in that year right after Obama got elected, it was a quite a bit of a gut punch. It caused an identity crisis in a lot of people, and people wanted to rationalize it.”
Coogler is plenty emotional, but he isn’t an outwardly angry guy. He wasn’t at any of those riots around his hometown; instead, he channels deep thoughts into his work. If it’s possible to be easygoing, warm, and intense at the same time, he’s the poster boy.
“Any project I’ve made, I made it from that place, of being emotionally affected,” he explains. “Not dissimilar to that assignment I wrote for that teacher. If I’m emotionally affected by something, a story, my mind kind of gets it out by making a movie about it.”
Coogler is incredibly young to be at this point in his career, but it took a long and unexpected journey to get him here.
A math and sciences whiz, he took a football scholarship to St. Mary’s College, majoring in chemistry, and planned to attend medical school upon graduation. But chemistry labs conflicted with the rigorous football schedule, and because his scholarship was the only way he could afford tuition, he had to pick a new major.
Thanks to a mix of fate and the demands of curriculum planners at St. Mary’s, Coogler ended up in a creative writing class. His professor, the author Rosemary Graham, asked students to write about their most emotionally intense experience.
Coogler doesn’t like to talk about what he wrote in that paper these days, but an old interview, way before Fruitvale Station hit Sundance, suggests that it was about a time his father nearly died. When Graham called him in his dorm room the next day, he says, “I thought I was in trouble, I figured she was concerned or something like that.”
Instead of questioning his past, she wanted to shape his future. He told her that he wanted to be a doctor; the professor said his essay was very visual, and she suggested he go into screenwriting. “I didn’t even know what a screenplay was at the time, so I thought she was kind of crazy,” he remembers. “So I just made sure I wasn’t in trouble, and then I went home and her words stuck in my head.”
Cut to a few years later, when Coogler was starting out at USC’s film school. Already a fan of the mainstream maestros like Spielberg, Scorsese, and Singleton, he says his formative moment came when he saw the Brazilian crime drama City of God, which “really expanded my mind.” Eager to fill up that headspace, Coogler started buying stacks of real cinephile stuff, from Fellini and Truffaut to Asian and Latin American cinema. He’d watch them in the school library, soaking in notes from the masters.
“He’s like an encyclopedia of film knowledge,” Diaz says. “He’s so well-versed in cinema.”
In 2011, Forrest Whitaker’s production company was looking for some fresh new talent to develop, and a kind word from a USC professor scored Coogler a meeting with the Oscar winner. They discussed some TV ideas he had, as well as a number of script concepts in the works, and it was Coogler’s desire to make a movie about Grant that sparked Whitaker’s interest. Suddenly, he had a little bit of cash and a heavy hitter in his corner, and after making several short films, his first feature was in sight.
So Coogler got to work, first calling a friend who just so happened to have worked as an attorney on the Grant murder trial. He got the hookup for the records, evidence, and testimony needed to piece together the first draft of a screenplay, but to make the kind of movie that he had in mind, Coogler needed help from Grant’s family.
“They were apprehensive and rightfully so,” he remembers. “My goal wasn’t to soothe their apprehension, my goal was to just be honest with them so they knew where I was coming from, so they knew why I wanted to tell the story, what my goals were, what my motivation was — that my motivation wasn’t monetary at all, that it wasn’t for personal gain.”
That’s the thing: Fruitvale Station isn’t a polemic that canonizes Oscar Grant and rails against the machine of oppressive law enforcement. Jordan plays Grant as simultaneously kind, conscious, desperate, philandering, and confused, trying to do the right thing even as dealing weed and getting in the grill of his old boss at the supermarket seem like shortcuts to temporary monetary relief.
“Everyone tells you about something different [about Grant],” Coogler explains. “You talk to five different people, they give you five different stories. They had the same through-line, they were about the same person, you could always tell it was the same person, but there were differences there. Different people knew different things about him that others didn’t know. His girlfriend knew lots of stuff his mom didn’t know; his mom knew things his girlfriend didn’t know.”
What emerged was a portrait of a complicated kid, with secrets and struggles like anyone else. The first two-thirds of the movie are really a simple day-in-the-life; errands and domestic stresses hardly foreshadow the coming tragedy, but to an omniscient audience, they are draped with a sad permanence, like a sort of neighborhood farewell tour.
“We made a movie that was very specific, but through that specificity, we look at things that are very common,” Coogler says. “People know what it’s like to be young, people know what it’s like to struggle with something internally and to have that thing you’re struggling with damage the people around you. People know what it’s like to have a mom, a spouse, a kid. We focused on those relationships.
“So I hope that people who never knew anything about Oscar, or don’t know people like Oscar, or don’t come in contact with young male African-Americans on a personal basis [see it]. So often, those are the people that are making the policies that affect those people, those are the people that are given a badge and gun and told to protect those people,” Coogler continues, highlighting years of entrenched disconnect. “So often those are the people that are called to juries, people whose their only contact with [African-Americans] is through the media, going to see a movie. So I hope people see this film and spend time with this guy and realize they’re just like us.”
The movie was shot in two weeks, with money tight — the budget less than a million dollars — and hurdles abounded. Not only was Coogler a rookie at making feature films, but it was being made right in his and Grant’s hometown. They didn’t have the money to close down the streets, so as much as they tried to keep it quiet, they often had onlookers; the fact that he cast some of his friends in the movie — they played Oscar’s friends — meant that there was a built-in audience too.
Staging the shooting was by far the most difficult part of the production, for reasons technical, logistical, and emotional. Remarkably, BART allowed Coogler to shoot his movie at the same platform where Grant was killed. The station was opened in the middle of the night for the production, and Coogler had to squeeze in what was normally a 12-hour shooting day into a third of that time.
“There was a lot of elements there. Lots of extras, firearms, measured beats with the actors, stunts, a lot of blows being thrown, a lot of moving pieces,” Coogler remembers. “The train was moving back and forth. crunched amount of time. On top of that we were in a place that has a lot of significance.”
The platform where that tense, climactic scene, which fully realizes the horror of the grainy cell phone video captured over four years ago, is now home to a poster for Fruitvale Station ahead of its Friday release. A place marred by tragedy now displays the work of a hometown hero.
Not that Coogler would ever let you call him that.