Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with Michael B. Jordan, the young actor now getting unanimous praise for his work in the new critically acclaimed film, “Fruitvale Station,” alongside Ryan Coogler, the first-time director of the movie.
“Fruitvale Station” won awards at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, and is already being touted as a frontrunner for Oscar nominations. The movie tackles one of the most explosive incidents in recent memory, when an unarmed 22-year-old African American man was shot to death by a white transit policeman at the Oakland, California BART station, Fruitvale Station.
A situation that resembles, sadly, what took place recently in Florida with Trayvon Martin.
But before we get to that conversation, as this is our 10th anniversary here on PBS, we’re continuing to introduce you to some of the folk who make this show possible each and every night. So pleased to be joined now by my friend, my abiding friend, Denise Pines, who’s been with me from the very beginning 10 years ago, and without whom, I can tell you, this program would not be on the air.
She was then and is still responsible for all the funding that keeps us on the air, so every one of us around here loves and adores Denise Pines – most importantly, me. Denise, thank you for your work and your friendship.
Denise Pines: Tavis, thank you for giving us 10 great years of conversations. I’ll look forward to the next 10. I’d also like to thank our funding sponsors here, Walmart, the people who started off with us, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation. As you know, it takes a village to do great programming, so I’d like to thank them as well.
Tavis: Well, we’re glad to have you here. So tell us who’s coming on tonight.
Pines: We’re glad you’ve joined us for a conversation with actor Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler, coming up right now.
Tavis: The incident depicted in “Fruitvale Station” is embedded in the minds of many Americans – an unarmed, 22-year-old African American man was shot to death in an Oakland subway station by a white transit policeman. One of those profoundly impacted by the killing was Ryan Coogler, then a film student at USC.
Now as a 26-year-old first-time director he’s made a powerful movie about Oscar Grant and what happened on that horrific New Year’s Eve back in the waning hours of 2008.
The film, which is getting outstanding reviews, stars Michael B. Jordan in what is being called his break-out role after critically acclaimed performances in TV series like “Fright Night Lights” and “The Wire.”
Let’s take a look at a scene from “Fruitvale Station.”
Tavis: Let me just start by saying congratulations.
Ryan Coogler: Oh, thanks so much.
Michael B. Jordan: Thank you, man.
Tavis: It is – this is the most powerful thing I’ve seen in a long, long time. I was saying to you guys before we came on the camera that I was in New York last weekend, Boston and New York, and flew back home yesterday and ran to a movie theater last night because I wanted to see it with an audience of people.
So the theater was pretty packed, which I was glad to see. But at the end of the film I was so transfixed I couldn’t get out of my seat. I just sat there for about 10 minutes and had to stop crying. (Laughter)
Jordan: You ain’t want anybody see you crying while walking out?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I didn’t want the lights to come up while I was crying. No, I wouldn’t have been ashamed about that. But I’d still like to say that I was in a theater that was overwhelmingly white, the west side of Los Angeles, and the point is I wasn’t the only one stuck in my seat, and I wasn’t the only one crying.
What hit me when I saw the film, Ryan, was what a brilliant job you did, which is hard to do – to get white folk to connect to, if not to revel in, the humanity of Black males. It’s one of the most difficult things to do, to get people to revel in the humanity of Black boys, of Black men, and somehow, you pulled that off. So congratulations.
Coogler: Oh, I appreciate the kind words, Tavis. For me, with me, making a film is always about humanity. Just going back to how I felt when I initially watched the video, and I think that for some reason as human beings we tend to react strongly to people that we perceive being closer to us.
Whether that’s when you’ve seen the news about a relative versus receiving news about a stranger. You’re not going to tell me how many times I wake up in the morning and hear about a tragic event that happened, whether it’s like halfway across the world or whether it’s some distance from me.
If I hear about a tsunami that hit Asia, hundreds of people have lost their lives, and you see it and you hear about it, but you still brush your teeth, still have to go on with your day.
But let you get information about one person who you’re close to or you’re intimate with, it has an almost paralyzing effect.
Coogler: I was deeply curious about why that is. As human beings, why does it take somebody to feel like they’re close to us for us to see their humanity? Why can’t we see the humanity in people that are distant from us?
So it was important to me in making the film that we looked at it from the lens of this one guy’s personal life, from the lens of his relationships. People know what it’s like to have a mom or have a girlfriend, have a daughter, to have people that you care about.
Nine times out of 10, those are the people that know you the best. Those are people that know your strengths and your weaknesses.
Tavis: Of all the things that you could have, all the subject matter, that is, that you could have delved into for your first project, I think I get it, but tell me more about why you were so insistent, why you worked so hard, pushed so diligently, to make this your directorial debut.
Coogler: For me it started with the incident itself. I was back in the Bay Area when it happened, Christmas break for my first year at USC film school. I was born and raised in the Bay Area. It’s the place I got a deep, deep affection for.
It was New Year’s Eve 2008. We were really optimistic. The Bay Area’s a very liberal place. Obama had just been elected. Everybody was really positive, looking forward, and I was working as a security guard, actually, that night, at a nightclub event that was going on for New Year’s Eve.
I got a call early New Year’s Eve morning that somebody had been talking to one of my friends that was coming back on the train and said somebody had been shot at the Fruitvale BART station, which was a station that we knew, but he didn’t know many details about it.
Later on that day and in the coming days, the news reports showed that footage for the first time. People recorded with their video cameras, their cell phone, and that footage showed Oscar getting shot, and the circumstances which he got shot in.
I couldn’t help but to see myself, knowing him. He was 22; I was 22 at the time, and he wore the same type of clothes that I wore. His friends looked like my friends. I just remember feeling sick, man, with a range of emotions like shock and frustration and anger and deep sadness.
In the coming days and months after that, people pushed and pulled his character in different directions. Some people on one side wanted to make him out to be this saint who had never done anything wrong.
People on the other side wanted to demonize him, like make him, (unintelligible) every mistake he ever made as if that was justification for what happened to him – he was a thug, a felon, not a human being but a criminal who got what he deserved.
I think the real tragedy lie in the fact that he didn’t make it home to the people who he mattered to. He didn’t make it home to his daughter, he didn’t make it home to his mom, and that’s what made me want to make the film.
Tavis: How difficult, how hard did you have to fight to get his mom, family, to sign off on you doing it? I ask that because what you did is masterful, and I don’t throw compliments around easily, but I think it’s a masterful piece of work. I’ll get to Michael’s role in that in just a second.
But it’s a brilliant piece of work. But that’s a lot to entrust to a kid, with all due respect, a 22-year-old young man who wants to do this. It took some time to make it happen and you’re no longer 22. You’re what, 26 now?
Coogler: Twenty-seven (unintelligible).
Tavis: Twenty-seven – ooh, excuse me. Okay, I’m sorry. (Laughter) Don’t want to (unintelligible) 27 now. But that’s a lot for his family to entrust in a first-time director’s hands. Tell me about the process very quickly of how you got to be the guy they gave the sign-off to.
Coogler: Well, it was an interesting occurrence of events. Like I said, I went to film school at USC. I had a friend who I met there named Efram Walker, and he was from Oakland as well, but he was in the Gould School of Law.
So we became close, like coming from the same place, and we actually hung out the night Obama got elected. We were real close that year before, and when we came back from Christmas break we were talking and he said, “Isn’t that messed up, what happened with Oscar Grant?”
I mentioned to him I’d like to make a film about that one day, and I kind of told him how I would do it, and Efram ended up graduating and going back to the Bay Area to work for the law offices of John Burris, who’s a big-time civil attorney.
Tavis: I know John well, yeah.
Coogler: He’s a big-time civil attorney there in the Bay Area. So he gave me a call back a year or so later, a couple of years later in 2011, and he said, “Hey, Ryan, man, do you still want to make that film about Oscar Grant?” I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Well look, I’m in charge of holding all the video footage for the case and helping out John with the case, so we need some help.”
Tavis: Wow. (Laughter)
Coogler: “We need some help organizing this footage.”
Tavis: Wow, the dots just start connecting.
Coogler: Yeah. He said, “If you still want to do that film and you come up and talk to John, maybe show him some of your films and talk to him about it, he’d be the best person to talk to.”
So I did that. I came up, showed John some of my work that I had done short film wise at USC, and he was very open to it. I talked to him about how I wanted to make the film, and he said, “Well look, once the family rests with the civil case, I can make the introduction. That’s all I can do, but you can talk to them.”
In the meantime between that meeting and actually getting a chance to meet with the family, Forest Whitaker’s production company came on board, which was a big help.
So I was still in film school when that happened, came back up to meet with the family again once they were done with the civil case and ready to talk. I didn’t want to convince them, I didn’t want to persuade them. I just wanted to make a presentation to them as to why I thought I could do it and why I thought a film could be helpful in providing insight.
So many people don’t get to spend time with young African American males. There are only so many people in this world, and oftentimes those are the people that are making policy and those are people that are on the juries, you know what I mean?
These people don’t get to spend intimate time with us. They only get to see us through the media slant, which is a very thin representation of what we are. So I talked to them about that and how I wanted to tell the story, and they were very reserved. They didn’t say much.
But I think that me being from the Bay Area, me being the same age as Oscar helped –
Tavis: Helped close the deal.
Coogler: I really think it was Forest, because (unintelligible) were significant.
Tavis: Well let me tell you this before I go to Michael. Forest loves you. I mentioned earlier that I was on a plane back home and wanted to rush back here to see the movie before you guys came on the show. I walk on the plane, who am I sitting next to? Forest Whitaker.
Jordan: Oh, wow. (Laughter)
Tavis: So Forest and I flew back home to L.A. from New York, and we got a chance to talk on the plane ride. He was singing your praises, immense praise that you received from Forest. So Forest was very confident that you could pull this off.
Forest, Michael, and thank you for your patience, I want to get the back story of how this thing came to be.
Jordan: I love listening to him, man (unintelligible).
Tavis: Forest – and I love watching you. Forest had a lot of good to say about you as well. I was just blown away at how well you inhabited this character. I guess the highest compliment that I can give you is that I think Denzel Washington is one of the – is probably the greatest actor of my generation.
The guy’s just brilliant. What I love about D is that whatever character he inhabits, you believe him in that character. You do not see Denzel Washington, I believe, when you see him act. You see Denzel inhabit the character, whether it’s Hurricane, whatever. “Training Day,” he inhabits the character.
You could not have convinced me that you were not Oscar Grant. You inherited this character so well. What was your process for getting into that spirit, that soul, that body, that mind?
Jordan: Honestly – thank you for the compliment, that’s crazy. Similar to Ryan, when I first heard it happened, I felt like it could have been me. I’m 26 years old. When it happened we were the same age. Looked like me. I come from north New Jersey, inner city, same relation from, like, a small inner city to like big city Manhattan.
I used to catch the PATH train back and forth a lot of times. There’s a lot of similarities between the two of us. Honestly, just getting to know him through the family. Doing the homework, getting a chance to move up to the Bay about a month before we actually started filming and really soak up that environment of what the Bay is really helped me out a lot.
I put myself in his shoes. Being a young African American male with not a lot of options, being a product of your environment, and really just trying to find a way out, trying to break that vicious cycle.
Doing the best with what you have and not really being able to find an outlet to express yourself. Then something I just can’t explain, man. It’s just like sometimes I just feel like this is what I’m meant to do, as far as acting’s concerned, as just trying to embody it and make it as real as possible.
I think sometimes less is more, and really just trying to get into his head space of where he was. I prayed a lot to Oscar as well. Just be around me, lend me your spirit, lend me your aura. Just be there while I’m trying to tell your story. I think that had a lot to do with it as well.
Tavis: Were there moments, were there scenes, were there days when the process – my word, not yours – the process was overwhelming for you, where the burden was so great?
I ask that because I’m watching certain scenes, and even though I know the story – that is to say I know what’s about to happen. You know you’ve done a great piece of work when the audience member, when the viewer knows what’s about to go down and you’re still on the edge of your seat, even though you know the story. This isn’t some movie that I –
Jordan: You don’t know how this will end.
Tavis: Exactly, yeah, I know how it’s going to end, and I’m still on the edge of my seat, I’m still shaking in my chair because I know that this moment is about to explode.
Tavis: So I guess the question is whether there were moments or days where as you’re inhabiting this character, it just becomes –
Jordan: Honestly, there’s a couple of scenes that first come to mind. There’s the one with the dog, with the pit bull, when he got hit by the car, because it’s very personal to me.
I had a buddy of mine when I moved to L.A. who’s in New Jersey who died in a motorcycle accident, and I always felt as though if I was back home, if I was riding with him or I was around, something could have happened differently. He still might have been there with me.
Sometimes when you grieve, you grieve at a time where you don’t really expect it. You might hear a song or you might smell something or see something that might trigger something, and all of a sudden you get hit with this rush of emotion.
For me, that scene was kind of like my grieving process for my best friend. Kind of embodying that character, it really took me to a place that I’ve never been to before.
Tavis: The relationship between you and this girl, the daughter – what’s her name?
Jordan: Ariana Neal.
Jordan: Ariana Neal, yup.
Tavis: I don’t know where you found her, Ryan, but the scenes between the two of them, the father and his daughter, are powerful stuff.
Jordan: Yeah, I think that was the most important relationship to Oscar, because she kind of represented his future. His mom represented his past, his girlfriend, Sophina, represented his present, and that was his future.
Just that relationship, that father-daughter relationship, is something that I think is so unique and it can’t really be explained unless you have a daughter. I just tried to embody it. She’s so fun to work with, too. She gives so much. She’s such an old soul, such a professional. (Laughter) She knew all my lines.
Tavis: At seven.
Jordan: At seven. She knew all my lines, so she was a lot of fun to work with, man. She really was.
Tavis: Ryan, tell me more about the role that – he mentioned his mom in the movie, who represents his past. His mom is played by the great actress Octavia Spencer, Academy Award winner for “The Help.”
Beyond the acting, tell me about the role she played in helping bring this project to the fore.
Coogler: Oh, man. Well Octavia, I wrote the script with Mike in mind, and we were casting the script in early 2012, which happened to be right after Octavia won the Oscar.
Coogler: We already had – you’re talking about great actors of our generation, you’ve got to throw Forest in there too, who won an Oscar as well.
Tavis: No doubt about it.
Coogler: We already had him on board backing the project. We didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of time and things of that nature, so when I was talking to my agent, Craig Costell (sp), about who was going to play this role of this mom, I said, “Man, we need somebody good. We need somebody who can really pull it off.”
He was like, “Well, what about Octavia?” She had literally just won the Oscar. So I’m like, “Craig, you crazy.” (Laughter) “There’s no way she’s going to come shoot this movie in Oakland and get changed in a bathroom.”
Jordan: In a bathroom. (Laughter)
Coogler: And with me, and I’ve never made a film before. I was like counting my blessings that we got Mike.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Coogler: He said, “No, no, she’s a great person. Give her the script and she might want to do it.” So we passed along the script and she actually has the same agent that Forest has as well, and I got the call back that she wanted to do it.
I was like, “Man, this is amazing,” but then I got nervous because she’s so successful, because she’s worked for so long. I said, “Man, maybe she’ll be the kind of person that just is doing this out of charity. Maybe she won’t want to really become involved, maybe she’ll want to get in and get out and not really want to hear what anybody else has to say.”
She’d be well within her right to be like that because of her career, because of her success. Man, I couldn’t have been further from the truth, man, from like the moment I met her.
She just has this youthful energy to her, this openness to her. She’s so smart, she’s so brilliant. I don’t know if you’ve interviewed her on the show for Viola.
Coogler: But she’s just an amazing, amazing person, an amazing team player, and just a shining, she’s a shining light. I compare her to a battery that kind of got hooked up to the film when she came on board and just motored us along.
Tavis: How hard did you have to work on the financial front to get this made? I ask that because we all know the stories, too many stories, from Spike Lee on down, or Spike Lee across the gamut, of persons who want to tell stories, particularly stories like this, that are hard truths, that are inconvenient truths, that are painful stories.
Again, a story that’s trying to get at the humanity of an African American male character. That ain’t the easiest stuff to do in Hollywood, so how hard did you have to work to actually get the thing done?
Coogler: Well, we had an incredible amount of support from quite a few places. Nina Young, Bon Jovi, and Forest Whitaker’s production company, Significant Productions, they came on board first, while I was still in school, before I had written a script. They secured us some money from an investor, actually, in China, of all places.
Which ended up being the majority of our budget. We made the film for under a million dollars, which made it a little easier to go about getting enough funds. But then we also got some more investors that came on. Octavia came on as a producer and secured some investments from some of her friends.
That actually happened when some money fell out while we were shooting. But we also had support from the Sundance Institute feature film program. They gave us countless amounts of grants.
Also had tremendous support from the San Francisco Film Society, who gave us countless amounts of grants both for production and post-production.
Jordan: And prep.
Coogler: Yeah, and a little bit of prep. They flew out, Michael and Melanie, who are both East Coasters, (unintelligible) come into the Bay Area, spend some time, get the script on its feet, meet Sophina, meet Tatiana, meet some of Oscar’s family members.
So we had support from these nonprofit institutions, we had support from investors that really had an open mind.
Tavis: Mike, I know you’ve been asked this before, but not by me, and not, given the last few days of the protests around the country, about the verdict in the Trayvon – I should say the George Zimmerman trial. Trayvon was not on trial. I have to keep catching myself when I say that.
Jordan: He was.
Coogler: He actually was, though.
Tavis: He was, though. I take your point.
Jordan: His character was.
Tavis: His character was, and they beat him up. They beat the crap out of him on that, I totally agree.
Tavis: What’s your sense of the timing of this? There’s a – in time, there are two (unintelligible) time. There’s kairos and there’s chronos. Chronos, as you know, is just the passing of time. One day to the next, the chronos, the passing of time.
But there are these kairos moments when everything seems to come together at the appointed time, and the irony of the release of this film right now is not lost on me.
Jordan: I feel like it’s just very timely. I feel like we have – who would have – speechless. Honestly, when the jurors went to go deliberate and it was the opening weekend of our film, I was like, “Wow, we couldn’t have planned this any better,” for lack of I guess a better word.
It blew my mind, honestly. It really did. I think it’s a message that really needs to be told right now. I think people need to see how we treat one another as human beings.
I think that humanity right now is at an all-time low in how we value life, especially among young Black people. We just don’t really value each other’s lives like that, and (unintelligible) going on now in Chicago on the rapid loss of life at –
Tavis: I have a Twitter account, and I’m not one of those persons that tweets incessantly. It’s not the way I flow. I think there’s some things that people don’t want to know and don’t need to know, so I’m not tweeting everything.
But literally I said before I left that studio, I left the theater, I sat there in my seat for 10 minutes, just crying, trying to process all this, and I pulled my phone out before I left and I tweeted before I even left the theater that at this moment this is the best way, the best gift that I think the country could be given for how to find a way into understanding, appreciating, and reveling in the humanity of Black men. It’s a gift in that regard. The timing of this is an absolute gift.
Coogler: (Unintelligible) For me, I appreciate those kind words ,Tavis, and for me, I never wanted the marketing and promotion of this film to ever come at this time. The timing of this was all completely coincidental.
Tavis: You don’t want to exploit the moment. I get your point.
Jordan: No, not at –
Tavis: That’s why I said, that’s why that chronos and kairos is very different. This had nothing to do with you.
Tavis: The timing of this sometimes is out of control, and you just accept the blessing of it and you try to – that’s why I call it a gift. I think it’s a gift for us, for Americans of all races, all colors and all creeds, can see that Trayvon was a human being.
That there was character to him, not just color, and there was complexity of character, not unlike Oscar Grant. The parallels are just mind-boggling for me. So I just say revel in the moment and be thankful that the film is out now.
You may be doing a lot of people a great service by giving them a way, one, for some to get to the humanity of our people, but for other people to at least have some sort of cathartic release or better understanding of what happened.
Jordan: Help along the healing process.
Tavis: Exactly. Anyway, it’s a brilliant film. I can’t say it any other way.
Coogler: Thank you, brother.
Tavis: As you can see, I immensely enjoyed it. The movie’s called “Fruitvale Station.” It is in major cities now, going into wider release in the coming days. But whatever you do, whatever you have to do to get a chance to see “Fruitvale Station,” you do it.
Directed by first-time Ryan Coogler, 27-year-old now Ryan Coogler, and starring Michael B. Jordan. You’ll want to see this. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.