Maybe black-and-white Shakespeare adaptations with the original ye olde English aren't your bag. Maybe meandering, slow-rise outlaw westerns set in a '70s so dark and dusty that it feels like the '30s aren't typically the types of films that will draw you out to the theater. Maybe you're more of a robots vs. giant sea monsters person. Or, possibly, you're one of the people responsible for the fact that Grown Ups 2 grossed $42.5 million domestically in its opening weekend. (If you are one of those people, please send your apology to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Regardless of what usually gets you into the dark room, I implore you to check out Fruitvale Station, opening Friday at Ritz Five in Old City and AMC Cherry Hill. The film is particularly poignant at the moment as it tells the story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black man who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a BART police officer in Oakland during the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009. Video of the incident went viral and the officer was eventually tried and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter (the defense argued that he intended to use his Taser, not his gun, to subdue Grant).
You can see the actual footage of the incident here, but be warned that it's graphic and that the language is NSFW.
Fruitvale Station, the first feature film from 27-year-old director Ryan Coogler, became a Sundance darling earlier this year when it took home the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film. It stars a charismatic Michael B. Jordan (Vince from television's Friday Night Lights and Wallace from The Wire) as Grant. It's raw and emotional and, for parts, the only audible sound was of the people in the audience sobbing in their seats.
I recently sat down with Coogler to talk about the film, its thematic elements, the role technology played in his version of the story, and more.
You were working the night the night Oscar Grant was shot, right?
I was working security at a rave in Frisco when it happened. You hear about it. Like, everybody was out that night. I got a call from a buddy who said, "Someone got shot at the BART station and they're holding up the trains and stuff." What's unfortunate is that people get shot in that area all the time. So, you hear about it, but then you saw the footage [of the shooting of Oscar Grant], which made this a little different. It brought people a little closer. I saw that like everyone else over the next few days. Everyone was talking about it.
Is that when you started to develop the idea for Fruitvale Station?
Any artist, whatever it is in us that triggers empathy or any kind of emotion, I think that's directly connected to what inspires us to create. This was one of those things that I thought about almost immediately. The other thing was that I saw the fallout from the situation afterward. It made me want to make a film in this format to give a little bit of insight as to why these situations just suck. You know, we're just like everybody else. We have people who we love, people who love us, and we're by no means perfect. But, there are stereotypes and what often comes through the media with us is so skewed in one direction, so I hope to give a little insight because I see a little bit of myself in this character. I see a little bit of my relationships in there.
Now that it's completed and you've got Sundance under your belt, do you feel any different?
I learned a lot and grew a lot in the process and it's all blended together on this film. It's going very fast, which has been intense. But, I feel incredibly fortunate every day. You set goals and I may have been a little shortsighted. It was like, "Let's get the movie made." It was, "Let's write the script." It was "Let's write the best script I can make." Then it was "Let's get the best locations" and, "Let's get the film shot." Then, "Let's get it edited."
I was taken by the sound in the film. There are moments of intense silence, but also a lot of environmental noise. And Oscar turns the radio up when he's in the car.
Sound is something that I'm really, really passionate about as a filmmaker. It was one of the tracts that I took while I was at [ the University of Southern California]. We wanted [Fruitvale Station] to be, like, the scope of a day. And it's a day that has a lot of sonic themes in it. It's New Year's Eve. It's kind of a loud holiday with celebration and fireworks and firecrackers and, in the Bay Area, people shoot their guns off and all kinds of stuff. But, because it's the scope of a day, we knew there'd be moments of quiet as well. Moments that would come at intense times. Things like waiting around at the hospital. Like the silence that comes after the gunshot while people try to figure out what they just saw. And just the quiet moments of a guy spending time by himself. Oscar is a character, in our film, who's uncomfortable by himself. So he tries to distract himself from the fact that he's alone. That's where the music comes into play, with him listening to the loud music in the car. A little bit of that feeling, like, showing people that [he's] there. And that's that element of being young and black. The fact that, often times, you feel invisible. You feel like you're not seen; like you don't matter.
And technology played a role in the film, too. You showed Oscar's text messages on the screen.
When I was first working on the screenplay, all I had were the court documents and public records from the testimony. That's kind of how I got the structure for the day. I think that, at that point, realizing the role that technology played and realizing that a lot of people who Oscar was friends with talked about how they sent text messages to him that day and just knowing the kind of day that New Year's Eve, when you're setting up plans, I knew that I wanted cell phones to be a motif in the films. That, and I wanted to shoot long takes. I wanted to let the camera sit and breathe. So, I came up with the idea of showing the text messages on the screen. I'm not the first one to ever do it, but I really wanted to have Oscar's phone to be a portal into what was going on with him.
Which sort of speaks to his duality. The film seems to offer some commentary on masculinity and what it means to be man.
The number one thing is that he's a man, but he's 22 and he's in an urban environment that has a machismo element there. You're expected to be tough and you're looked at to be macho, especially when [Oscar's] around his friends. He's a leader in the group of friends from his neighborhood, which, from the outside looking in, someone might call a gang. And they might not be entirely wrong in that. But, at the same time, his most important relationships...
Were with women.
Exactly. They came from being surrounded by women. If you look at all the women around him and what they're doing, they all have jobs. They're all working. His mom. His girlfriend. His sister. And he doesn't have a job. And that's a subtle thing that eats at him a little bit. It's a subtle thing that people might not notice, but when you've got a family and you've got a girlfriend and you've got to drop her off at a blue-collar job—when you've got to drop her off at Walmart—that's an emasculating thing to have to do. Especially because he was raised in a hyper-masculine place where the man was supposed to take care of everybody. And it's the idea that Oscar was "The Man" in these women's lives. He couldn't show them emotion. He couldn't show them that he was hurting. He had to hide that he was going through certain things. But, he also couldn't show it to his friends because he didn't want to show weakness. He wanted to be accepted and always wanted to be thought highly of. It's a very internal thing.The fact that he was still smoking at the time. The fact that he was stilling doing drugs. The face that he was still selling drugs. The fact that he felt like he had to provide [for the women in his life]. The way he was making money wasn't the right way. It was by doing the same thing that might take him away from them.
Fruitvale Station opens Friday, July 19th at Ritz Five and AMC Cherry Hill. Go see it. Bring tissues.