The California kid whose first full-length feature film wowed the judges at Sundance and Cannes this year is now showing it off to the world. "Fruitvale Station," about Oscar Grant, the young black man shot and killed by a transit police officer in Oakland on New Year's Day 2009, opens nationwide a week from Friday. Ryan Coogler has been moonlighting as a youth counselor at San Francisco's Juvenile Justice Center (where his dad works), but now his time is at a premium. Coogler's path from football star to filmmaker has people not only talking about his Oscar Grant film but about Oscar, period.
You've said it could have been you on that BART platform, yet you and Oscar Grant are very different people.
Just look at him. We were the same age, from the same place — the East Bay. His friends looked like my friends. At that time, we all dressed the same. In the film, the characters who play the roles of his friends are like the people I grew up with, that's how interchangeable it is. I've been in situations where you get stopped by police — it's not something unfamiliar.
What were your thoughts when you heard about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case?
I am in no way shape or form an expert on the legal matters of the case. I was devastated by Trayvon's [killing], as well as the implications of the trial and the verdict [on] the value of Trayvon's humanity. As a community, African Americans should put the passion, the energy, the emotions we feel now into protecting and nurturing our youth and repairing the flaws in society that enable their lives to be seen as so expendable.
Doesn't every young black man get the lecture from his parents about how to conduct himself around police?
Oh yeah. I went to college with a lot of white kids, and I realized they'd never had those conversations with their parents. I can remember getting stopped [with them] by police in college. I'd be nervous and paranoid, and they'd be super relaxed and talking crazy to the cops. I was, "Man, what are you doing?" Different realities.
Why did you decide to make a film about what happened in Oakland?
Something impacts me emotionally, art is a kind of outlet, and I figure it's the same for a lot of artists. The way my mind deals with things is cinematic. What solidified it for me was in the weeks following — who he was as a person got pulled and manipulated, and nobody was talking about the tragedy that this dude, 23 years old, was gone, except for the people who knew [him] best. People on one side wanted to make him out to be this martyr who had never done anything wrong in his life, and other people wanted to make him out to be the most deplorable criminal of all time.
I tried to portray him in the way that the people closest to him knew him, both sides of him. I know people like Oscar — never all good or all bad.
Where did your interest in film come from?
I have real good parents, I have two brothers, and we got good educations. My parents didn't have a whole lot of money, but they spent the money they had on private school for us, Catholic school. My school was pretty much all African Americans, but it was still a little tough to be in because I didn't have a lot of money. And when I came back to my neighborhood, it was tough to fit in there too because I was wearing Catholic school clothes, and I had two parents, which was rare. I'd work hard in school, I'd do well in math and science, but I'd always read a lot, and watch TV with my parents a lot.
What did you watch?
My dad took me to "Malcolm X" and "Boyz n the Hood" when I was 5 or 6 — I was crying in the theater for Malcolm X. My dad likes sports movies, and we watched all the "Rocky" movies. My mom liked Scorsese movies, and I watched with her. And "The Twilight Zone" — I watched that with my parents all the time. I've seen every episode! When I got to film school, I bought them all on DVD.
I was really into football, and I liked chemistry. I figured if football didn't work, I could go to medical school. I got a football scholarship to St. Mary's College. They made us take this creative writing class taught by Rosemary Graham. She said: "I want you all to write about your most emotionally intense experience; I want to check out your writing." She also said something about football being a barbaric sport, and we got into a little argument.
I turned in the assignment and was hanging out in my dorm room, and I got a call from her: "I want you to come to my office." I thought I was in trouble for what I'd written, so I was a little nervous. Actually, I was really nervous. I went to her office, and she says, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" I thought, "Oh, now I'm in all kinds of trouble."
I said I wanted to be a doctor. She got my assignment and said: "This is really visual; that's rare to be able to do that. You should think about becoming a writer instead of a doctor." She said: "Maybe you could even go to Hollywood and write screenplays."
I thought she was crazy at the time. My whole thing was, I'm not in trouble! When I was back in my dorm room, I thought maybe there was something to what she was saying.