Early on Jan. 1, 2009, a police officer shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, who was lying face down on the concrete platform at Fruitvale Station, a subway stop in Oakland, Calif. He was unarmed, on his way home from an evening of New Year’s revelry in San Francisco with friends. Scores of passengers witnessed the killing. Some filmed it.
Grant was black. Johannes Mehserle, the officer, was white.
The incident sparked protests, riots, and soul-searching in the Bay Area, as did the subsequent trial (Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served less than a year in jail). Millions watched videos of the incident online.
Now, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, “Fruitvale Station” has earned considerable acclaim. It opens here Friday.
Written and directed by 26-year-old first-timer Ryan Coogler, an Oakland native, the film takes place on the final day of Grant’s life and begins with cellphone footage of the real killing — an event that shook Coogler’s world. “I was in the Bay Area when Oscar got killed,” he said over coffee during a recent visit to Boston. “It affected everybody — especially people who were his age in that community. If he were still here, he would be 27.”
Coogler’s editors, one from Rhode Island and one from Brazil, had to remind him that most people did not follow the events, had not seen the footage, and would need to be introduced.
“I didn’t want to open that way at first,” Coogler said. “But then I thought, ‘People need to see this.’ I realized that my apprehension was because I was so familiar with it, I didn’t need to see it because I’d seen it so many times.”
Coogler grew up “in some neighborhoods in East Oakland and North Oakland that were a little rough.” His mother worked at a local nonprofit and his father was a counselor at juvenile hall in San Francisco. (Coogler is also a counselor, when not making films.)
“In the areas we lived in, the school system was terrible,” Coogler said. “My parents wanted us to have good educations, so they made that sacrifice for themselves to send me and my two brothers to Catholic schools.” While this schooling had its intended effect — Coogler said he excelled in academics, despite a few behavioral issues — it also set him apart.
“I never really fit in to where I was at as a kid,” he said. “My parents didn’t buy me a lot of material things. So I didn’t fit in with the crowd I was going to school with. And then I would go back to my neighborhood and I wouldn’t fit in with the kids there because I had on a Catholic school uniform, I had two parents, and I talked different. So I was kind of an outsider in both worlds.”
He overcame that feeling by playing football. Through the sport, he found acceptance, eventually winning a scholarship to Saint Mary’s College of California. But the school dropped its football program, so he transferred to Sacramento State on another scholarship.
At Saint Mary’s, his creative writing professor, novelist Rosemary Graham, had called Coogler into her office. “I figured I was in trouble,” he said.
Instead, he got career advice. “You should think about writing for a living,” she told him. “I think you could go to Hollywood and write screenplays.”
So Coogler gave it a try. “I had never seen a screenplay before,” he said. “I found an old copy of ‘Pulp Fiction’ just to see how one looked. And I started to write my own.”
‘For me, what makes the film hard to watch at the end is the relationships.’
At Sacramento, he switched his major from chemistry to finance, because he wanted to spend less time in labs and more in film classes (the school did not offer a film major). After graduation, he enrolled in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema Arts, where he made a few award-winning shorts. The most recent, “Fig,” which has made the festival rounds, is about a prostitute trying to take care of her daughter.
The shorts drew the attention of Forest Whitaker’s production company, which was looking to mentor young filmmakers. “When I told Forest what I was thinking about, he said, ‘I really want to help you make this film,’ ” Coogler said.
Whitaker’s backing helped Coogler earn the confidence of Grant’s family in 2011. “His character had gotten split at the trial,” Coogler said. “One side was saying all bad things. The other side was kind of lifting him up, to the point that he was like a god. What we wanted to do was to show him as they knew him. That was something new [for his family].”
Actor Michael B. Jordan plays Grant in the film. Fans of “The Wire” will remember him as Wallace, a 16-year-old drug dealer at the center of the story arc in season 1. “I think ‘The Wire’ is one of the more important artistic works since I’ve been alive,” Coogler said.
“Wallace could have been me,” said Jordan, in a telephone interview. “Oscar could have been me as well. I grew up in that type of environment. I felt a certain obligation to play this role. We’re so often looked at as not human. I wanted to be able to tell the story that humanizes it.”
Like the script, which doesn’t hesitate to examine Grant’s flaws, Coogler’s camerawork is intimate and personal. We see Grant in scores of mundane interactions with the people close to him — the sort of interactions that most films have no place for. “What happens on the platform — what happens in the last few minutes of the film — that’s not the film for me,” said Coogler. “That’s just a part of it. Death is a part of life. For me, what makes the film hard to watch at the end is the relationships — all the love that you see in them at the beginning.”
From the moment Grant wakes up, until after he is pronounced dead, the camera stays close. The entire film was shot on hand-held cameras (except for one flashback scene set in prison, in which Coogler said he used a fixed camera because “Oscar had reached the lowest point in his life — a point at which he was standing still”). In many scenes, where other directors would have cut, Coogler lingers, following characters from room to room in long, continuous shots. “We wanted to create a very visceral experience,” he said. “We figured that using that hand-held style would give the audience that loose, immediate feel of hanging out with someone, almost like watching home video.”
Home videos, after all, brought Grant’s death to the attention of the world in the first place.
In a striking scene midway though the film, Grant pulls over to fill his gas tank. Out of nowhere, a van barrels past and hits a pit bull, which dies in Grant’s arms moments later.
“African-American males — oftentimes, we like pit bulls,” Coogler said. “They kind of represent us in many ways. You look at how pit bulls are represented in the media: Oftentimes, you only hear about them when they attack somebody or they kill somebody. But people who have them will tell you that they’re the sweetest dogs on the planet, and that’s the kind of dog Oscar wanted for himself.”Benjamin Soloway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bsoloway.