By Kharisma McIlwaine
Every now and again you hear a story that has the power to shake you in a way that only the truth can. I recently had this experience with the new film drama Fruitvale Station. Fruitvale Station tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22 year old Bay Area resident who was handcuffed and unarmed while fatally shot by a transit officer on New Year’s Day 2009 on San Francisco’s BART system.
Video footage of the incident was captured on the phones of passengers who witnessed the shooting from the safety of the train. The footage went viral and was used in the case where the officer responsible was charged with manslaughter.
Fruitvale Station’s phenomenally talented cast which includes Michael B. Jordan as Grant, Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz, takes you on a journey through Grant’s last 24 hours before his death.
In the film Oscar (Jordan) tries to makes some strides in the opposite direction of his sordid past in an effort to become a better boyfriend to girlfriend Sophina (Diaz), a better son to his mother (Spencer) and father to his 4 year old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). The film takes you through an array of emotions as we see the effects of one decision over what mode of transportation Oscar wants to take. His decision to catch the train alters the reality of a family and community forever.
Ryan Coogler, writer and director of the film and a Bay Area native had a very interesting path that led him to becoming a director. Coogler was initially on a football scholarship and fell into a creative writing class as a prerequisite. After turning in a writing assignment about his most emotionally intense experience, his professor pulled him aside, told him that his writing style was very visual, and suggested that he should consider pursuing a career in writing.
Coogler remarked, “I thought she was crazy at the time but it kind of stuck in my head a bit. I was majoring in chemistry then and my labs were lining up at the same time as my football practices, so I was thinking about switching my major anyway. Then the school dropped football out of nowhere so I ended up going to Sacramento State, majored in finance there and took as many film and acting classes that I could take.”
At 26 one might expect to see Coogler take on lighter subject matter on the big screen, but he took a much different approach.
“I try to make projects about what’s really important to me,” Coogler said, “and making a movie is hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life especially making a feature film. When it’s such hard work you give yourself to it so much, you have to inspire other people to give themselves to it… It helps when it’s something that’s important to you, something you feel really strongly about. I try to make movies about stuff I have questions about or things that affect me.” Coogler finished by saying, “I think it would be cool to give people insight into situations that they personally could never get into and give them access to people they will never know.”
It was probably Ryan Coogler’s passion for sharing Oscar Grant’s story that grabbed the attention of Oscar award winner Forest Whitaker who produced the project. Ryan described his experience. “Forest Whitaker’s company reached out to me. It was surreal I was still in school. One of my professors made a recommendation to Nina Yang (who runs his company) to meet with me. We talked about a few things then she told me “ I want to get you in a room with Forest”. I told him about the project and he basically told me he wanted to help me make it right on the spot”.
Having Forest Whitaker and Olivia Spencer involved in your very first feature film is quite the accomplishment. After winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Ryan remains humble, grateful and eager to share compelling stories. I highly recommend that everyone goes to see Fruitvale Station which is now opening at The Ritz Five and AMC Cherry Hill this Friday July 19th.