Ryan CooglerThe Source Magazine sat down with “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler this week. The Weinstein Company film, which hits theaters today, tells the true story of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life. 

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Q: You started the movie with the documentary footage of Oscar getting killed, so talk about the choice of doing that because everything becomes a flashback.

It was a choice that came in the editing process. It wasn’t how I wrote the script. The script started off differently. I have one editor who was real adamant about starting with the footage. His name is Michael Shawver. He’s from Rhode Island, from a city called North Providence. My other editor is from Rio in Brazil. She’s a woman named Claudia Castello. And she’s amazing. But they’re both from really different worlds. They work together for me on my movies and they were really adamant about starting with the footage because they hadn’t heard about this situation. They were upset that they hadn’t heard about it. And me, I was working from a place of honesty with myself and I didn’t need to see the footage ’cause I’m from the Bay, I’ve seen it so much. And I could watch the movie, you know what I mean, with that in mind, while I was looking at this character. But as we were going through the editing process, I realized that a lot of people didn’t know anything about this situation. And in many ways, it managed to feel responsible to actually put it there. So, anybody who watched the film, you know what I mean, would have seen it.


Q: Are you happy with that choice?

Absolutely. I think that more than anything, it helps to put it in perspective the fact that you watch that footage the first time and your reaction is one of shock and maybe one of anger, maybe one of confusion. But you see that same incident happen again and you know the person, then you feel a completely different way. And I think that has a lot to say about why we made the film in the first place, you know what I mean, in terms of proximity and perspective, how different things can affect you in different ways depending on where you stand and what stake you have in the matter.

Q: How did you get involved and why did you decide to tell this story?

I was really deeply emotionally affected by it, because I was close to it. And once again, talking about proximity, I was in the Bay Area when that happened. I’m from there, I was born and raised there. Same age as Oscar, same ethnicity. Dress the same, same complexion, you know. So, I’m watching the tape and seeing his friends, and having been in those types of situations before, I couldn’t help but to see myself, you know, there. And that was the initial feelings that I had. It was something that affected everybody in the Bay Area. It came at a time when we were kind of on a emotional high. You know, the Bay Area’s a real liberal place and very political place. And, you know, Obama had just gotten elected. You know, I don’t know if you guys remember, but California was the state that put him over. You know what I mean? We were really psyched at that time. And for that to happen there, for it to be photographed like it was, just to get shot with a knee on his head like that seconds after being called the N-word, you know what I mean, by police, you know, it was something that kind of sent the Bay into a frenzy. You know, people jumped sides and said different things back and forth. Oscar on one side was put up as kind of a saint, this icon for any kind of injustice, for any kind of political motivation somebody may have. And on the other side he was demonized and, you know what I mean, said to be just a thug, just a felon, you know what I mean, somebody that got what he deserved, got what was coming to him on that platform, justice is served, and he was good for nothing. You know what I mean? That’s what people on the other side were saying. And for some reason, it was lost that this guy was a person, you know, just a regular guy. He didn’t make it home to the the people he mattered to, so I thought that maybe the film could help add perspective into that. That was being kind of lost.

Q: The movie very much talks through the character about layers of anger. You have the fighter archetype—he’s fighting for his life, to reform his life, by doing something regal, but he’s also a fighter in that he has a short temper. Can you address the whole panorama of the fighter archetype, the different layers and how on one hand it humanized him, but you couldn’t make him too much of the fighter because then viewers would be alienated. I’d like you to discuss the balance of the anger and the fighting.

That’s interesting. I never heard anybody put it that way. That’s an interesting assessment. I think that Oscar was dealing with a lot, a lot of anger, and most of it towards himself actually on that day, and I think that that’s an issue that a lot of African-Americans face in general, the issue of self-hate, especially African-Americans, and it’s a lot of things that he’s dealing with. I mean, like, he’s the man in so many women’s lives, and every woman that you see in that film, you know, from his family, he’s the man in their life. But at the same time, he’s very emasculated at this time. All these women have jobs or his mom calls him, she’s working; you know, when his sister calls him, she’s working. Where does he drop Sophina off in the morning? Drops her off at work. It’s a very emasculating thing to do. He knows he doesn’t have a job at this time and he’s frustrated at himself. His daughter was four years-old and he just got done spending a year and a half in prison, away from her, which is why you saw him doting on her now, but he’s very angry at himself for having missed that time. He’s trying to catch up. So, I think that the anger that he’s dealing with is, a lot of times, most often directed at himself in this film and on this day I would argue that almost every time you see him getting upset in the film, it’s really a misdirection, of him being upset at himself.Him being humiliated—his mom has to come in, and he has to sit down with all these dudes that give him permission to stand up and get down, you know what I mean. He has to take sass from somebody, in front of his mom. He can’t do what he wants to do about that, can’t really defend her and when she’s leaving he can’t stop her and give her a hug. Why is that? It’s ’cause he put himself in a situation. So I think that you hit the nail on the head in terms of the anger and in terms of him being a fighter and fighting all of these elements, but that was where a lot of the anger came from. It came from within him anyway.

Q: Forest Whitaker was quoted saying that he’s worked with a lot of unique voices as far as filmmakers are concerned, and he knew when he was dealing with one, when he met you. 

Forest is an incredible person, man. The day that I met him, I left a class to go meet him—I had class later on that day and I was very nervous because I’m a big fan of his work, both in front of the camera and behind the camera. He has an impeccable reputation. He’s one of those people that nobody else says anything bad about. And I sat down with him—when he came in, he just got this really calming aspect to him. It’s almost like a Zen-like quality to him, you know. Very humble person. In many ways, what he does with his career is very admirable. You know, he’s involved in a lot of conflict resolution, he works with the U.N., he works in Africa on conflict resolution as well as domestically. So, it was great just to get to know him, you know what I mean, and get to talk to him and see how he approaches his art and see how he approaches his life. And he basically gave me in many ways a mental safety net. When I was making decisions, he gave me freedom to make decisions, freedom to bring on collaborators that I had worked with before, and it made me comfortable, but he was always available, to offer insight, and to put me at ease when things were burning down all around me. And he was always there to offer help with anything that we came up against that might’ve been a political issue or logistical issue. And he’s incredibly prolific. Anytime I was thinking stuff is hard, I think about all that he was doing. We were making this film while he was shooting “The Butler.” He’s a guy that works constantly. He makes four or five films a year and has a family and has all these other responsibilities. He’s effective at all of them, you know.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about casting Michael B. Jordan? What was your first meeting like and why you cast him?

I did have Michael in mind while I was writing the script. I could talk to you about the reason I had him in mind. I’ve seen his work before. I think all films rely on the performances of the actors, but I knew this one was a major performance piece ’cause this character would be on the screen for like 98% of the movie. And one of the most important relationships of the film with the audience is your relationship to him. So, you have to be believable, but at all times. And Oscar was such a complex character that oftentimes he was many different people, you know, sometimes within one scene, sometimes in a few minutes. You know, so, I needed someone who was capable of doing that, who was capable of being very professional on a short shoot. You know, we only had 20 days. I knew he had worked in television before, which was as fast as a schedule could go and I knew that we would be working with a lot of non-actors, you know, in a lot of crazy locations. You know, so, I wanted somebody who had that experience, like, as a base so everybody can kind of wrap around them, you know, and somebody who looked like Oscar, you know, somebody who was around that age, Michael’s from Newark, which is similar environment to the Bay Area. So, all those criteria, he fit. You know, when I first met him, I fell in love with him. He has a quality that can’t really be taught, you know, a quality that pulls people in and draws you in when you meet him. He’s an incredible, incredible person, incredible thinker, you know, incredible talent. So, that was what came across in the first minute, so that’s why we went with him.

Q: How did you decide how to portray the scenes when Oscar was alone? Obviously there are no accounts from that day what he did when he was off by himself. 

Sophina was very much the kind of girlfriend that’s gonna ask what you did when you’re by yourself. You know what I mean? We had that. We had what he told her he did. And, you know, we made creative choices for some of those times, but for the most part we went off what Sophina said, ’cause Sophina said he told her what he did.

Q: Can you talk about how important it was to take us into his home and see his family life as well as Sophina’s life at home?

It was immensely important to me. For me, this film was a domestic drama. You know, it’s a very domestic film. And it was important to me because that side of us is never seen, is never shown, and it was never talked about in this case. Like, what’s shown of us, what’s shown of young black men is what’s happening out on the street. What’s shown of us is being criminals and us being these thugs and being hard and dealing with all of those things. And even though that’s a very rare percentage of us, Oscar could’ve fit into that category in many aspects of his life, but he also had this aspect of his life that he spent most of his time doing. You know what I mean? Most of his time was spent in this domestic fashion. And it’s interesting to me ’cause that’s the life that I know. I know all these guys like Oscar, you know, and I’m from this community. You know, I know dudes that have served jail time, but they like this with their grandma. They’re calling them all the time. You know what I mean? And on birthday parties, it’s one of the happiest places on the planet to be in one of these homes during a celebration like that, especially when him haven’t been home, you know, when he was gone for years before. So, it was immensely important to show that stuff because I think that it’s so rarely shown, and I think that that’s where the similarities lie between all of us. People could see that and say, “Oh, man, I have birthday parties, hanging with my family. You know what I mean? These guys are like me.” You know, I think that’s what’s missing when it’s only a slanted representation of a certain type of people in media or a one-sided or a narrow representation.