"‘Fruitvale Station’ Director Ryan Coogler On Filming Police Brutality, The Bay Area, And Trayvon Martin"
When Fruitvale Station, the story of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before he was shot on New Year’s Eve by transit police on a BART platform in the San Francisco bay area, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January I was struck by Michael B. Jordan’s remarkable performance in the lead role, the movie’s deft, warm, funny conversations, and the bond director Ryan Coogler built between Oscar and Katie (Ahna O’Reilly), a young woman Oscar meets in the morning and ends the day filming his death as an act of witness. I caught up with Coogler in June to talk about Katie and Oscar’s relationship, why he made the movie as a love letter to the Bay Area, and how he hopes Fruitvale Station can challenge audiences’ perceptions of young black men–and what kind of justice they deserve. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I wanted to start about by asking you about the frame device of the film, which is Oscar’s brief relationship with Katie, a young woman he meets in the supermarket where he used to work on the morning when he died, and who runs into Oscar on BART heading home from New Year’s celebrations, and ends up filming his death. Was the idea that it would be more understandable that a bystander would film someone’s altercation of with the police if they actually knew that person?
No, no, it was none of that. She was a combination of two separate characters, one who had bumped into Oscar earlier on New Year’s Eve and recognized him when he got put off of the train, and immediately turned her footage in, and another woman who Oscar helped out at the supermarket randomly. It’s basically a combination of two real people.
That’s fascinating, because I don’t know that the bystanders have been public figures in the same was.
No, not at all. But when I first wrote the film, the first thing I had access to was the court testimony. So different witnesses testified in the trial, the police officers included, his friends, his family, and several people on the train who turned in footage. So I chose to combine those two characters because I felt it would help tighten the narrative in many ways. And I thought it would be interesting to the audience, because there were several people filming, both on the platform and in the film, and I thought it would be interesting to have someone filming who felt like they had a little bit of a stake in what Oscar was going through, and a little bit of insight.
I thought it was interesting because it’s really become a civil liberties issue, the right to film cops. And Katie becomes an interesting character in a way. Instead of it being a macabre thing for her to do, it’s a really humane act.
Right, it’s really the only power that somebody has. That’s the only power people had in that situation. It’s interesting because so many people did it, so many people thought to film what they were seeing and what was happening, and they sensed a little bit of inherent unfairness in what was happening there. People shouted at the police, if you listen to the footage, you can hear the whole BART car shouting at what they were seeing. And you know, it’s an interesting thing. And it was also a way to highlight, ’cause the film is about racial tension in many ways. It’s not about racial tension, but it covers some racial tension. And the Bay Area, it’s an interesting thing, because the Bay Area is a place that, you know, is very diverse. And it has people from different walks of life who bump into each other and have different relationships. It’s also a very open place in many ways. So I thought it would be interesting to highlight the fact that not everybody who video recorded the police officers were black. It was all different people who did it, and to highlight that the Bay Area is a place where you have these interactions, where people from different backgrounds kind of bump into people like Oscar, and what those interactions can be like sometimes.
And that gets at something that I loved about the film. One of the real strengths of the movie’s dialogue moment to moment was the way people talk about race, because people do talk about race in everyday life. Was that an attempt to capture the Bay Area in particular?
Yeah, I think it is a way to capture the Bay Area in particular, and humanity in particular. Because it comes up in discussion. People talk about it more in real life than they do in movies. It’s funny, because oftentimes it’s casual. It’s the kind of stuff that we rib each other on in the Bay. And I wanted to capture some of that reality of how we talk about things, both in public situations and in private situations.
There seems to be some real anxiety in Hollywood writing about capturing those moments.
It’s all about perspective. I think that for me, I’m from a place that’s really diverse. I got a diverse group of friends. And I think, just inherently I’m comfortable writing about this stuff because I know it pretty good.
It seems like it’s a matter of character detail rather than of conflict, like who you’re going to root for in the Super Bowl, what kind of card you’re going to pick out for your mother.
Right! Right! Yeah, I think, when you think about what we joke about and what we laugh about, it’s kind of human, the way we work, the way our sense of humor works, that you laugh abou things that are kind of uncomfortable things to talk about. So race is one of those things that always walks kind of a fine line like in the Bay, because it’s so diverse, it comes up in jokes a lot. It’s one of those things that you can joke about and it can go the wrong way, oftentimes. Things like having white friends from you side of of the neighborhood. The way Oscar might talk to his white friends, a white friend from that neighborhood might not be able to say certain words, maybe he does, but he can only say it around certain people.
I wanted to ask about the portrayal of Oscar, because I thought the movie did something striking in portraying him as someone who was worthy of affection and sentimentality even though he’s not a saint. He doesn’t have to be Jackie Robinson, he doesn’t have to be a world-historical figure. He can just be a guy, and worthy of our sympathy. How did you find that balance of letting us being emotional about him as a person, while recognizing that he can be irresponsible, and irritating to his mother and difficult to his fiancee?
We tried to both show him in the scope of this day, and still be up-front about the things that he was struggling with, without dragging people through it. I think that sympathy, in many cases, it comes from just being intimate with the person throughout the film. And I think that any character, no matter how deplorable, no matter what they’re struggling with, no matter what they’re dealing with, if the character feels real and genuine to the audience, and you’re spending time with them–and with Oscar it’s very intimate, you’re spending a whole day with him–I think it’s naturally a human thing to grow sympathy for somebody who you’re around. It’s easy not to have sympathy for someone you don’t know. It’s easy not to have sympathy for someone you’ve never been around, and you’ve only gotten shorthanded, hackneyed descriptions of somebody through media or through what you see on the news or what you see in pop culture. What we hope to do with the film is just to bring people close to this character. And I think that’s a natural thing to do, to care about someone after you spend time with them.
The movie has a charity that I think is not often extend to black men in the news cycle or pop culture. My boss is covering the Trayvon Martin trial right now, and I like the domestic framework of the movie, that if you know Oscar through the little things, the bigger narrative can’t get a chance to take root.
Yes, it’s a trip, man, what people see somebody as being deserving of, or see as fair treatment of somebody. It all comes in the lens that they see them through. It’s interesting watching what’s happening with Trayvon, how so many things are being brought up that don’t even make sense for the case. So many things, I’m not sure why something in his past would serve as justification for what happened to him. But if anything fits the media portrayal of how young black men are seen, the negative comes through, if anything comes through, he can be reduced to that.