FRUITVALE STATION written and directed by Ryan Coogler, with Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Durand. An Alliance Films release. 95 minutes. Opens Friday (July 26). For venues and times, see listings.
Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station recounts the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man from the San Francisco Bay Area who was shot dead early on New Year's Day 2009 by transit police who'd already handcuffed him and placed him on his stomach on the platform at Oakland's Fruitvale Station after an altercation on a train.
Coogler wasn't interested in making a movie solely about institutional racism or class barriers in America - though those were certainly factors in Grant's death.
"What I wanted to do was tell Oscar's story, and so often Oscar's story became that platform, you know what I mean?" says the director on the phone from New York City. "It became arguments over what happened on that platform, [whereas] the greatest tragedy to me is that this guy didn't make it home to his loved ones."
That meant showing us, through flashbacks and intimate moments, who Oscar Grant was to his friends and family.
"I wanted the film to put the audience in a close proximity with Oscar," Coogler says, "to the point where they feel what it's like to know him and to care about him. Once you spend that kind of time with [someone] and know what they're going through, it's human nature to have some kind of empathy for them."
To that end, Coogler set out to cast rising star Michael B. Jordan - who broke out as the doomed Wallace in the first season of The Wire - to embody Grant in all his contradictions.
"I was really very sure in the writing of the script that he was my guy," Coogler says. "He's just such a great actor, you know? He could play so many layers. He's someone I always felt an instant connection to. Chronicle and Red Tails came out when I was writing the script, and I was wishing the camera would stay with him when it followed somebody else. I'd be like, ‘Man, I want to follow that guy!'"
Coogler worked closely with Grant's family to shape the script.
"I basically did all the research through them. There was a lot of trust and a lot of freedom. I would communicate with them about things that would come up in the film. And it wasn't all positive things that came up, which was not easy for them."
These included Grant's selling drugs, and throwing himself into the fight that would lead to his death.
"But you know, you put that in because that's what he was doing at the time."