By Danny Peary
Fruitvale Station, which opens at the UA East Hampton Cinema 6, on Friday, is about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two-year-old African-American who was detained on a BART platform in Oakland after a scuffle on the subway on New Year’s Eve, 12/31/08, and shot to death without provocation by a white transit cop. The young officer, who claimed he accidentally grabbed his gun while reaching for his Taser, might not have received even a two-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter–for which he served only eleven months–if his crime hadn’t been captured by many subway passengers with their camera phones. Real footage of the killing that stunned a nation begins the movie.
Ryan Coogler’s feature debut has for obvious reasons been included in the conversation about the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman trial–for which there was, unfortunately, no video. But the best film of the year (along with What Maisie Knew), which I believe the Weinstein Company will push for a Best Picture Oscar, could stand on its own as a testament to both Grant and scores of other young black men who suffered similar fates because of their race. Through Michael B. Jordan’s complex Oscar-worthy portrayal, Oscar Grant (like Trayvon Martin) becomes the face of all the anonymous young African American men who have suffered from discrimination–including profiling–and all who were killed before they could fulfill their promise. Grant was no saint, and had even been in prison for dealing drugs, but he was beloved by his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), grandmother (Margorie Shears), and his entire family–there is lots of hugging! And there was a good chance he would be able to turn his life around. He was a decent man who was worth rooting for and that he barely made it into the new year is heartbreaking. Ryan Coogler is quoted in the film’s production notes: “I want audiences to know that he was real person. He was a person with real struggles and personal conflicts, but also with real hopes, and real dreams, and goals. And his life mattered deeply to the people that he loved the most. I hope that the film gives the audience a proximity to characters like Oscar that reading a newspaper headline can’t.”
Prior to the film’s New York City release, and prior to the not-guilty verdict Zimmerman received, I took part in the following two roundtables, first with stars Jordan and Diaz, and then director Coogler. I note my questions.
Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz
Q: Why did what happened to Oscar Grant make you want to make a film about him?
Michael B. Jordan: Because it could have been me. Oscar would have been 27 today, I’m 26. He’s from Oakland, I’m from north New Jersey. Oakland has the same kind of relationship to San Francisco, the big city, as north Jersey does to Manhattan, in a way. I used to catch the PATH train over here all the time for auditions and the West Indian Day Parade, stuff like that. I’d come into contact with cops all the time, and those situations could have easily escalated into an incident like Oscar Grant’s. I saw a lot of similarities, minus his drug dealing. Loss of life–I am so tired of it. You get tired of seeing those incidents happen over and over again. Sometimes you’re not allowed to really express yourself or have an opinion on certain personal matters. This film was my opportunity to express myself in the way I wanted and not be completely judged.
Danny Peary: Do you include personality traits among the things you have in common with Oscar Grant?
MJ: I think Oscar and I have a lot of similarities. I think he was a people-pleaser. He just wanted to make everybody around him happy. It was a juggling act all the time with him, and I think he got tired after a while. Me, personally, I’m kind of the same way with my family and friends. Sometimes I overextend myself and put myself last a lot, just as Oscar put himself last a lot. I have a quick temper, too. I takes a lot to get me mad, but when I’m there, I’m there. I think that’s kind of the same for Oscar as well. We just had different circumstances.
DP: Did you want the Oscar Grant as you portray him to be an exact replica of the real Oscar Grant? Or did you intentionally move away from him so he’d be part Oscar, part you, and part all young black men?
MJ: No, I tried to dissolve myself as much as I could into my character. Acting for me, sometimes, is drawing from my personal experiences and trying relate that to what my character is going through. That’s where the role kind of comes from. I tried to blur the line between me and my character.
DP: Melonie did you try to be 100% like the real Sophina?
Melonie Diaz: No, I didn’t want to imitate her. My Sophina is more of a representation of who she really is. She and I do have a lot of things in common. We’re both young women, we’re both incredibly strong, and we’re very opinionated. But I’m not a mother. Also in terms of physicality, she’s really different from me in how she chooses to wear her hair and do her nails.
Q: Did either of you experience anything like what your characters did?
MD: I feel lucky to have never lost anybody or had anything close to that experience. I feel very, very blessed.
MJ: As I said, I’m a young black man from north Jersey, so I’ve had my run-ins with the cops. Way too many times, my friends and I have been harassed, pulled over, hand-cuffed on the side of the road, and had our cars towed. I’ve been told my driver’s license was suspended when it wasn’t and I had to walk home. When you get pulled over fifteen times in the course of two summers, it stays with you after a while. I pulled from those experiences—and my outlook on authority and the cops—when I played Oscar Grant.
Q: How did you deal with all of Oscar’s anger issues in the film without making him unlikable?
MJ: The most important thing about Oscar is that he’s a human being. He’s flawed, he has many emotions—and anger is one of those. He has a very quick switch, a quick temper, for sure. We tried to find moments in the script where we could show his thought process for trying to put a lid on his anger. For the most part he keeps his anger in check. We see flashes of it here and there, including the flashback of when he was in the prison. He didn’t want to fight physically with anybody that night he was killed. He was tired, it had been a long day; he was just fighting to get back home to his daughter. It quickly turned into him fighting for his life. That was the one fight that he lost. Ryan and I collaborated on a lot. We thought a lot out beforehand because we had such a short amount of time to shoot things. He did allow time for a few things to organically happen, and that’s when we imagined all these things that aren’t exactly on the page but are between the lines. I think it was really important to have those moments.
Q: Talk a little bit about getting to know Oscar through his family and friends and of the most unexpected things that you found out about him from them.
MJ: I don’t think there were many unexpected things. The gist of a lot of conversations I had with Oscar’s mom was about her relationship with him and how they treated one another. Melonie and I got to hear how Oscar and Sophina were with one another, especially on that last day, and where they were in their relationship. It was also important that we spent time with Oscar’s best friends, who reminded me a lot of my friends back home in Jersey. We met at a barbeque, in a park, and one time on the train and we’d just listen to them tell stories. Everybody had different perspectives about Oscar because he was different around everyone. He was a very complex and layered young man, and we tried to find moments during his final day to show him in different social settings. He was a social chameleon who for the most part blended in no matter where he went.
Q: As a woman, I feel like the woman’s story often gets left out of scenarios about a men going away to jail or dying. Often the story of the woman who is left behind and is still the wife or girlfriend or mother to their child doesn’t get told. But, Melonie, this film got into that.
MD: That’s something that really resonated with me. It started on the page; Ryan did such a good job in terms of structure, showing how Oscar is affected by the women in his life. They are kind of what made him who he was. It was really refreshing to me that Ryan chose to shed light on Sophina, because she knew Oscar better than anyone. I think of her as an of example of the many women who are left behind to raise their family and must tell their kids about their fathers. It’s another tragedy and very upsetting. There’s all this hatred that rolls into pain and loss, and that was something I really connected to. I wanted to play a woman that goes through that journey. I think there are a lot of women out there like that, and people are going to watch this movie and be like, “Yeah, I know that girl.” Sophina is like a lot of girls that I grew up with. She’s a great mom, and she’s tough and not afraid to speak her mind.
DP: Is there still talk in the family about what could have been if Oscar were still alive?
MD: I know that Sophina and Oscar were at this point where they really wanted to do right by each other. He was going to be faithful and they were going to get married, move out of the neighborhood, and put Tatiana in a private school. They were at a crossroads and Oscar could have been great from then on. What could have been makes his death even more devastating.
Q: What was the most challenging scene for you two to film?
MD: All the stuff in the BART sequence, when Oscar’s upstairs and Sophina is on the street waiting and doesn’t know whether he’s okay. On a side note, it was kind of like a joke, I told Michael that he couldn’t be around me while I was shooting that scene in which Sophina worries about Oscar still up on the platform. And Michael kept poking his head in to be funny.
MJ (laughing): That didn’t happen every time!
MD: I’d be signaling and telling him to “Move, damn it!” That was tough.
MJ: Physically, the most challenging scene for me was probably when Oscar gets operated on. Just lying there and having people poke and prod and draw blood was not fun at all. And it was hard being in the morgue, on that slab for hours, knowing one day I’ll be lying in a real morgue, with other bodies! Otherwise, the most challenging sequence for me, too, was the BART stuff, when Oscar is shot on the platform. We had four hours to get it, with one camera. We didn’t have time to do a lot of takes, so it was hard to go through so many emotions in a short amount of time. There was a lot of pressure.
Q: Do you think the Oscar Grant case changed how the police treat people, racially? Is there more fair treatment now?
MJ: I don’t think so.
MD: Things that are not changing, as we see with George Zimmerman. It’s really sad to me that it’s a theme in our society and what we watch on our daily news. There should be something about what’s going on and how we can change it. Hopefully this movie starts conversations.
MJ: I agree with that. Hopefully this film can start smart conversations about the way we treat one another and the value of life. You see, it doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the trigger. You see what is happening in Chicago right now. This summer’s been crazy there; the rapid loss of life is unheard of. Four or five people are being killed there every day. Where’s the gun control in Chicago? It’s mostly black-on-black gun violence, so people don’t care so much. But what happened in Connecticut, with all due respect, was treated in a different light in the media. That was a big thing, but so is what’s happening with black kids being killed in Chicago. We need to start looking at the bigger picture.
Q: How do you feel this film relates to the Trayvon Martin case.
MD: I feel in wake of the Trayvon Martin case and even the repeal of DOMA, there is obviously an issue in regard to how we choose to perceive and judge each other based on the color of our skin and our sexual orientation. There’s a lot of hatred and unkindness right now, and I think this film is at least a step forward in terms of bringing this social issue to the forefront of people’s minds. Because clearly we all want to talk about it. What’s so interesting about this movie is that we take it to Cannes or Sundance or anywhere else and the responses are all the same. I think there’s something really special about that.
MJ: I’d rather not get into the Trayvon Martin case. It would just be my personal opinion. ["My heart hurts so bad right now." Jordan stated after the verdict. "It broke me up. That’s why I think this film means so much, because it keeps happening again and again. [We must] learn how to treat each other better and stop judging one another just because we’re different. It’s not just a black and white thing. It’s a people thing.”]
Q: What are you doing next?
MD: I did an episode of Girls, and other than that, I don’t know!
MJ: Same here, pretty much. I read a lot of scripts, trying to figure out what’s next, but I’m not really sure. I’ve got a romantic comedy with Zac Efron coming out January 31st. After this film I wanted to switch it up a little bit and show some diversity. I had to do something lighter.
Roundtable with Ryan Coogler
Danny Peary: Talk about your choice to start the film with documentary footage of the real Oscar Grant being shot by the transit cop, making everything we see afterward a flashback.
RC: It was a choice that came about through the editing process. It wasn’t in the script.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler
I had two editors on this film. One was Michael Shawver, and he’s from Rhode Island. My other editor was Claudia Castello, who is from Brazil. They’re from different worlds but worked together for me on my movie. They were both really adamant about starting with this footage because they hadn’t heard about this situation. I hadn’t felt the need to include the footage because I’m from the Bay Area. I’d seen it so much that I could watch the movie with it in mind. But as we were going through the editing process, I realized that a lot of people didn’t know anything about this situation, so it made me feel I had the responsibility to put it there so that anybody who watches the film will have seen it at least once.
DP: Are you happy with that choice aesthetically?
RC: Absolutely. I think that more than anything it helps to put everything in perspective. When you watch the footage the first time, your reaction is shock, and maybe anger, and maybe confusion. You see it and say, “It shouldn’t happen again.” After seeing the footage, you know Oscar Grant as a person and feel a connection in a different way. I think that is a big reason why we made the film in the first place.
Q: Why did you decide to tell this story?
RC: I was deeply affected by it emotionally. I was in the Bay Area when it happened. I’m from there, I was born and raised there. I’m the same age as Oscar, have the same ethnicity, have the same complexion, dress the same. So I’m watching the tape of the shooting and I see myself. That was the initial feeling that I had. For everybody in the Bay Area, it was very emotional. The Bay Area is a very political, really liberal place. Obama had just got elected that November. California was the state that put him over, and were really excited at that time. So for that to happen there, for it be photographed, for the N-word to be used [by a transit cop] started different things going back and forth. For one side, Oscar was an icon for any kind of injustice. On the other side, he was demonized and said to be a felon who got what was coming to him–he was good for nothing and justice was served. Somehow it got lost that he was just a regular guy trying to get home that night. I thought that making a film would help add perspective into that.
Q: The movie very much presents Oscar through his layers of anger. You have him fighting for his life, fighting to reform his life, and also fighting to hold his very short temper in check.
RC: I’ve never had anybody put it that way. I think Oscar is dealing with a lot of anger on that day, and most is directed toward himself. Self-hate is an issue that a lot of African-Americans face in general. There are a lot of things that he’s dealing with. He’s the man for a lot of people in his life, for every woman in the film. But at the same time he’s very emasculated. All these women have jobs. His mom calls him, and she’s working. His sister calls him, she’s working. Sophina works. He and Sophina have a four-year-old daughter, Tatiana, but he doesn’t have a job at this time, and he’s spent the last year and a half in prison, away from her. He’s very angry at himself for having missed that time with her, which is why he’s doting on her now–he’s trying to catch up. I would argue that almost every time you see him getting upset at someone in this film, it’s really a misdirection. He’s feeling humiliated.
Q: Forest Whittaker was quoted as you are a talent. Can you talk about the experience of working with him as one of your producers?
RC: Forest is an incredible person. A very humble person. I left a class to go meet him the first time. I was a big fan of his work and was very nervous. He came in and had this really calming aspect to him, almost a Zen-like quality. It was great to get to talk to him and see how he approaches his art and his life. In many ways, he gave me a mental safety net. He gave me freedom to make decisions and to be more collaborative than I was before. He made me comfortable and was always available to put me at ease and offer help in case there was a political or logistical issue. Any time I thought stuff was hard, I remembered all the hard stuff he was doing. He makes about four films a year, and has all these other responsibilities. He’s involved in conflict resolution, working for the UN, abroad as well as domestically. In many ways what he does with his career is very admirable.
Q: I read that you had Michael B. Jordan in mind for Oscar early on.
RC: I’d seen Michael’s work and had him in mind when I was writing the script. I knew that Oscar would be on the screen 98% of the movie, and one of the most important relationships I needed to establish would be his with the audience. The actor had to believable at all times playing a character who is different with different people, sometimes within the space of a few minutes. Michael could do that. He was also capable of being very professional on a short shoot, twenty days. It was great that he had worked in television, which is as fast as a schedule can go. He’d also worked with a lot of non-actors, in a lot of crazy locations. I wanted somebody who’d had that kind of experience as my base, so everybody could wrap around him. He also looks like Oscar and is around his age. When I first met him, I fell in love with him. He has a quality that can’t be taught, that draws you in. He’s an incredible thinker, an incredible talent.
Q: How did you decide how to write the scenes when Oscar is alone? Obviously there’s no account of what he did on that day when he was off by himself.
RC: It was from talking to Sophina. She was very much the kind of girlfriend who will ask her boyfriend, “What did you do today when you were by yourself?” So we had that.
Q: How about the scene when he pets a stray pit bull while he’s getting gas and then he cradles it after it is run down in the street?
RC: That scene is supposed to be polarizing. Some people hate that scene, and some say it’s their favorite scene in the movie. For me as a filmmaker, and Michael as an actor, that scene was very important. It wasn’t a scene that’s there just to show Oscar’s a good guy, it wasn’t about that. It was that Oscar’s favorite animal was a pit bull. He would tell Sophina that when they moved to a house he wanted a back yard so he could get a pit bull. He’d always lived in apartments where he couldn’t have a dog, and this was part of his American Dream. Young African-American males in other areas are attracted to pit bulls, that’s a dog we often choose to have because we seem so much alike. You hear about pit bulls in the media mauling somebody and being awful creatures, but actually they’re the sweetest dogs in the world. The parallel is that we lose our lives like that dog that dies in the street. You see in other scenes that Oscar is always trying to be cool, tough and collected, no matter what he is going through, but during that moment with the dog [before and after it is run down] you see another side of him. Let me tell you the origin of that scene. I have a little brother with the same personality type as Oscar. He’s very outgoing, very bubbly–he’d walk into this room right now and make everybody laugh–but he’s also keeps a lot of hard stuff inside. One day he came home really bummed out, and I could tell something was wrong so I asked him what was up. He told me he saw a dog at a gas station get hit by a car, and the dog died right there in front of him. He told me that, and then I’d think about how Oscar has seen people die in the street and how he just kept moving.
Q: Is what happens to the dog part of the parallel you are drawing?
RC: Yeah, it’s a foreshadowing.
DP: Here’s a strange question. Did Chad Michael Murray, the actor who played the transit cop who shot Oscar, find it difficult playing that part?
RC: Chad’s an incredible guy, a really nice person. He was concerned about playing that role, and we talked about the choices that he would make while doing it. We talked through a lot of it.
DP: Did that shake him up at all?
RC: Yes, it did, but he did it. He’s an amazingly talented actor and I was proud of his performance, as I was with the performance of Kevin Durand, who played the other officer.
Q: Can you take about how you thought it was important to take us into Oscar’s home, and to see such things as his grandmother preparing gumbo? It added a lot for me.
RC: It was very important to me, because for me this film is a domestic drama. It was very important to me because that side of Oscar Grant has never been shown. It was never talked about in that case. What has been shown is a black man being shot, and Oscar fit into that category. But there was another aspect of his life that took up most of his time. Most of his time was spent domestically. I’m from this community and I know dudes who sell drugs but are also close to their grandmas and call them all the time. Birthday parties like the one for Wanda, Oscar’s mother played by Octavia Spencer, are some of the happiest times on the planet for them–just to be in these homes during a celebration like that, especially if you’ve been gone for a year. It was important to show that stuff because it’s so rarely shown. That’s where the similarities lie for all of us. People can see that and say, “This guy’s like me.” It’s unfortunate that the representation in the media is one-sided.
Q: What are you doing next?
RC: I’m looking at a high school football movie. I’m just hoping to do something as important to me as this project.