How "Fruitvale" Became Sundance's Breakout Film
Twenty-six-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler explains his personal connection to the project.
PARK CITY, UTAH — "If someone was to ask five people about you — let's say they ask your best friend, they ask your mom, they ask your spouse, they ask your worst enemy — they'd all be the truth, but it'd be very different versions," Ryan Coogler says.
Coogler is explaining how he constructed a composite of the last day of Oscar Grant's life for his film, Fruitvale, which premiered Saturday at Sundance. It has become one of the festival's standouts; on Monday, the Weinstein Company acquired the distribution rights for $2.5 million.
Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan in the film) was born at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, on Feb. 27, 1986. He died at Highland Hospital on New Year's Day 2009, hours after he was shot in the back by an officer of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police at the Fruitvale station in Oakland.
"I got a call that someone was shot on the BART train while I was working; I was working as a security guard at a rave on New Year's Eve," says Coogler, who, like Grant, was born in Oakland in and raised in the East Bay. If Grant were alive today, he and Coogler would be the same age: 26. "I got a call from my father that it had happened."
Grant was one of several men officers claimed was involved in a fight on a BART train car early on Jan. 1, 2009. Grant was shot on the platform by an officer who would later claim he pulled his gun instead of his taser during a subsequent struggle with Grant on the platform. The shooting was captured on several cell phone cameras; the footage was shown on the news and posted on the Internet, and it sparked a series of demonstrations in the Bay Area. Grant's image was put on posters, stickers, and buttons alongside the words "Justice for Oscar Grant."
Coogler, who was working toward an MFA at USC film school, wanted to make a movie about it. He pitched Forest Whitaker's Significant Productions on the idea. "[Whitaker] liked it and basically said, 'I want to help you make this.' I graduated and immediately started working on the script, and at the same time got introduced to the family," Coogler says.
"I met all of them at the same time, at one meeting," he says. "I met Wanda [his mother], Oscar's uncles, Chantay, Oscar's sister, and then I met Sophina, Oscar's girl, then Tatiana [his daughter], and then I met his friends."
As Coogler got to know the people who knew Grant, the idea of orienting the film around the last day of Grant's life began to emerge. "I found out what that day was like, and I realized that day was extremely ironic," Coogler says. "What he did that day, that it was his mom's birthday, and it was New Year's Eve — that it was a day that people think about how they're gonna be better."
Coogler took the pieces that different people told him and created a mosaic of Grant's last 24 hours.
"There was a portion of Oscar's time that he spent by himself during that day — nobody can say what he did or didn't do for sure," Coogler says. "Some things about what he did on that day his mom didn't know, but his girl did: that he lost his job, that he was struggling with trying to go straight."
Coogler doesn't pretend that his film is documentary. "It's a dramatization," he says of Fruitvale's version of Grant. "At the end of the day, it's a character, right?"
Keeping that fact in mind, though, didn't make the filmmaking process any easier for him.
"The difficult thing about this was that I had to write this character dying; I had to watch this character dying. I've seen this dude die probably tens of thousands of times throughout this process," Coogler says.
"That part was tough because it's tough for me to watch — day one, you see the video, and you see yourself. I don't have kids, but I meet his daughter. I talk to her and spend time with her and every second of it my heart is broken. I meet his girl, I see my girl. I meet his mom, I see my mom."
Coogler's closeness to the material and subjects is the film's biggest strength — the audience's collective heart breaks for Oscar, and Sophina, and Tatiana, and Wanda — but it is also the film's chief weakness.
Fruitvale's Grant has no flaws. Any wrong he's ever done happened offscreen, and it is righted on-screen: He dumps the last of the weed he has to sell in the Bay, promises his girlfriend he'll never stray again, tells a stranger he's thinking about proposing to her, and rescues a stray dog that has been hit by a car.
Even in the moments before his death, when confronted by an authoritarian caricature of a BART officer, Grant is cooperative, and he tells his friends to be cooperative too. And then he is shot in the back.
To the viewer, it just doesn't make sense. And maybe that's because it was senseless; it is unexplainable.
Coogler says he did he feel a responsibility to the family (though he insists they did not attempt to influence the way Grant was depicted in the film), and to the city, and to an entire community mobilized by the tragedy.
At the end of the day, though, he says his purpose was to make a great movie.
"It's always on your mind, but it can't be the front of your mind or else you can't work. [You] can't be talking to actors thinking about how the whole city is going to be looking at this film, the whole metropolitan area."
Which is one way of saying, if somebody were to ask five people about the Oscar Grant shooting, they would get five different answers. Fruitvale is Coogler's.