'Fruitvale's' following an indie template

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 'Fruitvale Station'

Actor Michael B. Jordan (right) and director Ryan Coogler of the soon to be released film 'Fruitvale Station' in Chicago on the CTA Brown Line platform at Chicago & Franklin. (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune / July 2, 2013)

"Every time he messed up it was like he was killing the three most important women in his life," says Ryan Coogler, the writer-director of the excellent new drama "Fruitvale Station." He's speaking about Oscar Grant, who in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, was shot and killed on an Oakland train platform by a transit policeman.

In the filmmaker's eyes Grant's mother, played in the film by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, represented Grant's past; his lover, Sophina, played by Melonie Diaz, his present; and his four-year-daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), a better future. All three are formidable components of "Fruitvale Station," which imagines, docudrama style, Grant's final day, evening and early morning.

Coogler and Jordan came to Chicago recently, six months after "Fruitvale Station" caused a splash at Sundance and just weeks after it played the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival. Other American independent films, notably "Beasts of the Southern Wild," have followed this very route all the way to the Academy Awards. But the stylistic differences between "Fruitvale" and "Beasts" are immense, the former trafficking in canny, atmospheric realism, the latter in a world of flamboyant (and bombastic) fable.

The "Fruitvale" duo's visit preceded the not-guilty verdict returned Saturday in George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Since that verdict, the world and its pundits have been weighing in on Coogler's film and its intimate account of race and justice in America.

In the research phase Coogler and Jordan met with members of the family and Grant's friends. "He could turn his personality on a dime," Jordan says of the man he plays. "You'd hear about different versions of him from different people. He could blend in anywhere." Coogler adds: "The most heartbreaking aspect of talking to Oscar's daughter, who's now 9, is that she'll talk about her dad in the present tense. 'My dad has hair like that.' She's still processing what happened."

Coogler wrote the first draft of "Fruitvale" before being granted access to the family and their stories. During his final year of film school at the University of Southern California, Bay Area native Coogler partnered with Forest Whitaker's production company in the development of the picture.

The Cannes festival screening, Coogler remembers, was a trip. "It was raining. Hard. People kept clapping inside the theater, and we went out into the lobby, and the French people mobbed the actors. Then we went outside and got into the cars, and the people outside in the rain were still there, clapping for Mike. I was happy for him."

Jordan: "A minute later, we were crawling along in the car, and Ryan called Oscar's mom. We both talked to her for a little bit. She was talking to me like I was her son. The emotional high, going from a standing ovation to this conversation with this woman, who told me she was proud of me like I was her own son…." Jordan lets the thought dangle. The film goes into wider release, including a Chicago bow, this weekend.

mjphillips@tribune.com

@phillipstribune

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