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Updated: Fruitvale Premieres, Sells at Sundance

A Q&A with Richmond-based filmmaker Ryan Coogler on his debut film, Fruitvale.

Updated 1/23/13: Fruitvale has sold for $2.5 million according to SFist.

 

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, 26-year-old filmmaker Ryan Coogler makes his feature debut with Fruitvale, inspired by the real-life killing of Oscar Grant by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009. With big-name support from producer Forest Whitaker and actors Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan, and Chad Michael Murray, the Richmond-based Coogler—named one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 new faces of 2012—is generating lots of buzz.

 

What compelled you to tell Oscar Grant’s story?

When you see the [cell phone] video [of the shooting], you think, that could have been me or my brothers or my friends. As I researched, I found that we had mutual friends—my cousin knew him well. We’re both black, the same age, from the East Bay. This story needed to be told by someone familiar with his situation.

Did you encounter any push-back during filming?

People were open to it, even BART. We filmed at the places where Oscar worked, lived, and traveled, even the hospital where he died. Bay Area culture is very specific. We used a lot of professional actors, but also local characters, many of whom had never acted, to get the authenticity we were looking for.

Yet you changed the names of the real BART police officers involved in the case.

Anytime that you’re telling a real story about real people, someone might not want to be represented in that way. I plan on living in the Bay Area. I don’t ever want to violate anybody’s wishes.

In college, you played football and wanted to be a doctor. How did you get into filmmaking?

At Sacramento State, a professor called me into her office to talk about an assignment I had written and told me that I should try writing Hollywood screenplays. I thought she was nuts. Then I downloaded a couple of screenplays, read them in my spare time, and thought, “Hey, I could write these. Maybe she’s on to something.”

You’re a counselor at the Youth Guidance Center in San Francisco. What does that involve?

I’m a cross between a childcare provider and a guard. I deal with kids, so the biggest thing is to be a positive influence in their lives. Oftentimes, they don’t have anyone telling their story. Their situations are products of flaws in society.

What impact do you want your portrayal of Oscar Grant’s story to have on audiences?

I want to give Oscar his humanity back. Anytime that someone’s life is lost and there’s an inkling of politics involved—and it happens all the time—that person is not around to speak and defend himself. His character gets pulled in different directions depending upon which side of the fence you sit on. We saw it happen with Trayvon Martin, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

 

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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