GWEN IFILL: Oscar Grant’s name may never have been known if he had not been killed just hours into the new year of 2009.
Now the story of the 22-year-old man who’d spent New Year’s Eve celebrating with friends in San Francisco has become the subject of a critically acclaimed new film, Fruitvale Station.
Grant, who was unarmed, was shot dead by a police officer on an Oakland rail platform. The fictionalized account follows him through his last day.
ACTORS AND ACTRESSES: Five, four, three, two, one. Happy new year!
ACTRESS: What is going on?
ACTRESS: Hey, Oscar, how are you?
ACTOR: I’m good. I’m good. Happy new year.
ACTRESS: Happy new year.
ACTOR: Get off the train now! Put that phone away.
ACTRESS: Where are you? Are you still on the train?
ACTOR: We’re still at Fruitvale.
ACTRESS: Why can’t you tell me what is going on? What is the problem? What are you doing?
ACTRESS: Oh, my God.
ACTOR: I’m good. I’m good. I’m going to be good. We’re going to be good.
Ryan Coogler wrote and directed Fruitvale Station. It is his first feature-length film. He joins us now from San Francisco.
Thank you for joining us.
You chose to tell us a very — a polarizing story in a humanizing way about this individual, Oscar Grant. Why did you choose to tell his story this way?
RYAN COOGLER, director: Oh. Well, for me, it was really important to tell a story from the perspective of the people that knew him the best.
After the situation happened and Oscar lost his life, the event itself became very politicized. People kind of picked sides, people that didn’t know who he was, in many ways made him to be whatever they wanted him to be for their political agendas. Some people wanted to make him out to be a saint and a martyr. He became a symbol for whatever political agenda they had.
And people on the other side wanted to demonize him, to make him just the sum of every bad mistake that he had made in his life, look like he was just a criminal or just a felon, just a drug dealer that got what he deserved on that platform.
For me, it was something that I wanted to get to the heart of who he was from the people that knew him the best before this situation. Every one of us, every human being has people that they mean the world to just doing their everyday lives. And for him, it was his mom and his girlfriend, his daughter.
I was very interested in telling the story from the perspective of all his relationships.
GWEN IFILL: You are yourself obviously an African-American young man, not yet 30 years old. And did this story resonate with you in a special way?
RYAN COOGLER: Well, absolutely.
I’m from the Bay Area, was born and raised here my whole life. And Oscar was the same age that I was at the time. He was 22. I was 22 at the time that he was killed. So, it definitely resonated with me in a really emotionally intense way.
The first time I saw the footage, I couldn’t help but to think how much he looked like me, how much his friends looked like my friends. And when I had that close proximity to that, just from the standpoint of being from the Bay Area, looking like the guy and moving through the same situation that he’s been through, I really thought about it on a personal level.
Like, what if that happened to me? What if I didn’t make it home to the people that I loved most in my life? And it was from an unnecessary situation. So, it definitely affected me.
GWEN IFILL: As a filmmaker, you have had pretty amazing success first time out of the box here at Sundance, at Cannes. And I wonder whether you expected this to resonate as it has with a larger audience.
RYAN COOGLER: Oh, not at all. I’m the most surprised by how the film is being received and how it’s been accepted by audiences domestically and abroad.
For me, it was always about making something that was very personal to myself and very important. I knew it was a story that had resonance in the Bay Area here, where Oscar is from and where the event took place. And it was a goal for me and all the filmmakers involved to really tell the story as specific as we could, but really have it be about universal things.
It’s really a domestic drama about relationships. Everybody knows what it likes to be young. Everybody knows what it likes to be struggling with something in themselves that maybe has damaging effects on people that they love around them, which was the situation Oscar was going through. And everybody knows what it’s like people that mean the world to you and want to have a positive effect on people’s lives.
GWEN IFILL: Ryan, I…
GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.
RYAN COOGLER: No.
And I think that really getting to the heart of that stuff is what we hoped would connect with people outside of that — outside of Oscar’s demographic. We hoped that those things would hopefully connect. We had no idea that they would, though.
GWEN IFILL: You talk about Oscar’s demographic.
The weekend that I saw the movie was right after the Trayvon Martin verdict — George Zimmerman verdict, and people everywhere in the theater where I was were sobbing, sobbing watching this film, even though they know how it ended at the beginning. How did — I wondered what degree this Trayvon Martin movement that sprung around the country has affected the way people see this film?
RYAN COOGLER: Well, I can’t speak to that totally.
As a filmmaker, it was really ironic that the verdict came down the weekend our film got released. Obviously, we were working on the film before Trayvon had — was killed. And that tragedy, when it happened, deeply affected me back in February. And it affected a lot of people. And I think that the verdict had a similar effect on a lot of people that were tuned in to watching it.
But it wasn’t in our plan at all to have the film be coming out and to be released around that moment that the nation was watching that trial. In many ways, it was coincidence. I think that people can see parallels. And for me, it was always about — Oscar’s story was always about the loss of potential with this young man’s life. And so many young African-American males lose their lives to violence, to senseless violence in this country every day.
So, I think that because it was something that was in the media that was a situation involving a young African-American male losing his life, people definitely drew parallels there.
GWEN IFILL: Well, I found the movie very affecting. And I thank you for making it. And good luck on your next project.
Ryan Coogler, the director, the writer of Fruitvale Station, thank you for joining us.
RYAN COOGLER: Oh, thank you so, so much for having me.I really appreciate it.