Last weekend, when people in Oakland wanted to protest George Zimmerman's acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, they marched to the Fruitvale station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The location is freighted with significance: Shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, 2009, a transit police officer shot and killed a 22-year-old black man by the name of Oscar Grant. Videos of the incident posted online spurred protests, rioting and the eventual conviction of the officer. They also prompted Ryan Coogler, a 27-year-old Bay Area filmmaker, to write and direct Fruitvale Station, his impressive debut feature. After winning awards at Sundance and Cannes, the film opens in Toronto Friday.
What was your primary motivation to make the film?
Seeing the footage, the first time I saw it, I was shocked, sick to my stomach with what I saw. And I was really emotionally moved by it. I went from shock to anger to sadness to confusion – and, more than anything, to helplessness. And I felt close to him, emotionally tied, because I looked at Oscar and I saw myself. He looked like me, he was the same age as me, was from where I'm from. His friends looked like my friends, you know? I've been in similar situations before, and I just couldn't help but think about – what if I didn't make it home to my family, make it home to the people that I matter to?
From there, I saw people protesting, rioting. People went back and forth, picked sides, saying hateful things on the Internet. Nobody was really talking about the fact that this human being lost his life, you know?
There was a political push-pull as far as what Oscar's identity was. As soon as it happened, everybody felt they could grab his identity and use it for whatever agenda, whatever point they wanted to make.
You mean on both sides?
On both sides, man. Like, people on one side wanted to make him out to be this martyr: 'He was an activist, he was a peacekeeper, he was this perfect guy who never did anything wrong in his life – and he was martyred for his beliefs.' And on the other side: 'He was just this felon, he was a thug, he was a drug dealer. He got what he deserved.' But if you rewind the clock back to Dec. 31, 2008, there are people who Oscar Grant meant the world to, at that time, before he was killed. People whose lives revolved around him, and I wanted to get those relationships, because I felt like that's where the humanity exists.
Oscar's family gave you the life rights to his story and they acted as advisers on the film. Given their involvement, did you feel you had the freedom to depict him as less than perfect?
Absolutely. I thought that was necessary, to show he was struggling – and he was struggling with a lot. He was a guy who just got out of prison and was still doing the things that got him there in the first place. All his relationships with the women that mattered in his life were strained. His daughter, he was trying to catch up for lost time. He'd spent nearly half her life incarcerated, you know? Obviously he and his mom had their issues, and he and [his girlfriend] Sophina have their issues. And I thought it was important to show those issues.
It's interesting that you said you looked at the footage and said, "It could have been me." That echoes what Barack Obama said recently about Trayvon Martin. How comfortable are you with people drawing comparisons between the cases?
I'm not very comfortable with it at all, man, to be honest. It was never intended for this film to be released coinciding with what happened with the George Zimmerman case.
A critic with the Washington Post said the film "transcends heated rhetoric and reflexive anger." Was that your aim?
The film for me wasn't about anger; it was about love, and it was about the love that he had in his relationships. And there's nothing perfect on this planet, you know what I'm saying? We all have tremendous flaws – we all do. And I think if we look at people as people who have love in their life – that's a different way of looking at somebody. And I always thought more can be accomplished that way.
What would you hope the film achieves?
I like to make films when I have questions about something. The question that I started with this was: Why is it that I can wake up in the morning, read a news report about some tragedy that's happening – let's say the tsunami that happened in Indonesia. I'm able to see it and I'm maybe a little bit affected by it, but then I'll brush my teeth, I'll put my clothes on and go off to work and I'll have a day.
But say, rewind the clock back, and I get a call that someone I'm close with has lost their life – God forbid. It's a completely different feeling, you know what I mean? I'm devastated. I'm not able to function, I'm not able to go on. And so my question is: Why is that? Why do we have to be intimate with somebody to feel something if something happens to them? Why do we have to be intimate with somebody to recognize them as human beings?
I think the short answer is that if we all felt as strongly about every single tragedy as we do about the incidents that are close to us, we'd never get anything done. Not to minimize what you're saying.
I completely agree with you. It's almost a survival mechanism, right? And a coping mechanism. And I think that that same mechanism can also be hurtful because it's a mechanism that lets us see people as others, as not part of their community.
The movie's website asks people to repost photos from the film on their Tumblr as a way to "join a movement," to "raise awareness of social injustice." What exactly does that mean?
To be honest with you, man, the website is run by the Weinstein Company's marketing division, you know. That's not my website so I don't feel comfortable answering your question about that.