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‘Fruitvale’: an interview with screenwriter Ryan Coogler

June 1, 2013

by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey

“Fruitvale,” the award-winning movie about the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, is one of the most anticipated films of the year and is set to debut in mid-June in Los Angeles. I caught up with the writer of the film, the Bay Area’s own Ryan Coogler, to talk about the film.

Be it that I was one of the people who went to jail during this ordeal for fighting police terrorism, I had some questions about why this film did not include the life and death of Lovelle Mixon and would it be able to be used as a weapon against police terrorism. Read Ryan Coogler’s answers in his own words.

Ryan Coogler accepts grand jury prize Sundance Film Festival 012613 by Danny Moloshok, Invision
Ryan Coogler accepts the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his film, “Fruitvale.” – Photo: Danny Moloshok, Invision
JR: Ryan, how are you?

RC: I’m hanging in there, man. I’m just taking a little time away from my Pops in the hospital. He had a little surgery.

JR: No problem, man. We definitely wish your family the best and hopes that your Pops gets out of there as soon as possible.

RC: Appreciate it.

JR: Right on. Can you tell the people a little about what inspired you to write the movie “Fruitvale”?

RC: That’s a good question. What inspired me to write it was just seeing the incident happen. I was here in the Bay, home from film school when it happened. And when it went down, I was like everybody else: I was shocked when I saw it on YouTube and you know a lot of emotions came over me. I was like everybody who saw it. And coming from the Bay Area, you saw somebody who kind of looked like my friends who I came up with – and looked like me – and that really made me want to tell the story I was seeing the aftermath of.

You know, seeing the direction that his character got pulled in, by people on both sides of the political fence, like he was the most horriblest person that ever walked the earth, you know what I mean? Some people made him out to be the most perfect person to ever walk the earth, you know what I mean? Some people made him out to be perfect, and some people made him to be a criminal, so the tragedy lies in a gray area. So we as human beings, we have a mixture of all kinds of things, so I tried to tell the story of who he really was as a person.

JR: So tell us, the film is a feature-length film, right?

RC: Yes, sir.

JR: And where does it start? Does it start the day before he got murdered – ‘cause he was murdered on New Year’s Eve of 2009, does it start on Dec. 31st?

'Fruitvale' posterRC: It really shows the last 24 hours of his life so the movie takes place on New Years’ Eve. There was a lot of things going on in that time.

JR: Well, let me ask you this, as a filmmaker and somebody who actually went to jail in the incident in the resulting riot. Where do you feel the strength in the Oscar Grant movie is? Me and our cousin – since we share a cousin, De’Andre – me and De’Andre were having this debate and this discussion where I feel that the …

RC: Hey, JR, somebody went to jail in the riots?

JR: Yeah, that was me. I went to jail during the riots and had to fight a case for 13 months, where I almost had to get locked up. They tried to lock me up (for) three to five (years) during the rebellion.

RC: Sorry to hear that, man.

JR: No problem. Yeah, but we beat it, you know, with the support of the people. It’s just one more strike. But where is the power, not so much in the movie, but in the Oscar Grant movement? I was debating with De’Andre and telling De’Andre that I thought that the power was in the fact that he (Oscar) was a face-less man and that it could’ve been me, it could’ve been you, it could’ve been the listeners to the Block Report, it could’ve been anybody, and that’s why I think people responded the way that they responded. Where do you think the power lies and why did people rise up the way they did behind Oscar Grant?

RC: That’s a good question, man. In terms of power, I’m not sure what … every time somebody’s life is lost at a young age I think people need to stop and re-evaluate the situation. Coming from the Bay Area, you know, I spent time in Oakland and Richmond; that’s where I came up. In both those cities, man, youngsters are losing their lives all the time, know what I’m saying, in different ways, and I think that anytime that happens people should stop and re-evaluate and ask themselves why.

I think the media often is a distancing factor when you hear reports about somebody getting killed that you didn’t know, when you open up a paper and see somebody slain. I think that with Oscar, people videotaped it and people were able to see the actual thing that happened to him, and that kind of broke down a certain barrier that, as opposed to hearing about it through word of mouth, and the fact that it was here in the Bay Area, and we kind of look at the Bay Area as a place almost as a beacon to the rest of country of social tolerance, you know what I’m saying?

We think of the Bay Area as this diverse place. You think of the Bay Area as being one of the more tolerant places around, you know? When you see something like this happen here, it is a shocking thing for everybody. That’s kind of one of things that energized people, accompanied by the fact of where it happened at and people actually videotaped it actually happening. That’s what caused the reaction that happened; that’s what I think it was. Does that answer that question?

JR: Yes, sir. Well, let me ask you in a different way, something that I’m trying to hit at. I know that police terrorism is at the root of the Oscar Grant issue; that’s what everybody talks about. Why is it that you concentrated on the last 24 hours and, say, not police terrorism?

'Fruitvale Station' poster
Since it was acquired by Weinstein, the name of the film has been expanded to “Fruitvale Station.”
There was the case of Gary King right before Oscar Grant and then right after Oscar Grant there was the case of Lovelle Mixon, which was just about as controversial. For those people who don’t recognize the name Lovelle Mixon, he was a young man in Oakland, California, that two months after Oscar Grant was murdered by the police on television, or I should say on camera, Lovelle Mixon murdered four police officers also in Oakland before he was murdered by OPD. Why is it that you didn’t feel like that was a part of the story?

RC: Well, my goal was to tell a very specific story, Oscar’s story, and I thought that was the best way for me to tell the story of Oscar Grant. What I wanted to do in the film was to tell about his last 24 hours, you know what I mean, what happened after Oscar Grant was killed at the Fruitvale BART station and what happened with the media after all that stuff was so easily accessible, know what I’m saying? And you could research that stuff how it was presented.

Filmmaking is a very controlled medium; it can be at times, you know what I mean? So what I wanted to focus on was the specifics of the last day of his life, and I thought that would be the best way to bring people into his world, and the best way to examine it: who he was as a person and also speaking for the people like him. That’s the best way to answer that.

JR: I know that you recently won an award at Sundance. Can you tell the people a little bit about your work with Forest Whittaker and also what did people say about why they picked you to win the award at Sundance, and what award did you win at Sundance?

RC: An audience award and a grand jury prize, and there was a lot of amazing filmmakers there. It’s strange that they called this a competition, because it’s art – what somebody likes and somebody doesn’t like. And for the audience award, everybody watches the films at the festival, they have a chance to vote one time for each film they see, and from my understanding they counted up the votes and that’s how they distributed the audience award. And the grand jury prize works in a way that the jurors at the festival watch all the films, and they vote on the films, and they give different awards to different films.

But just to be accepted to a festival like Sundance was honor enough, and I can’t speak much more about how the awards work because I wasn’t involved in handing them out. But it was a great thing for the community and everybody involved: the actors, you know, like from Michael B. Jordan to Octavia Spencer, everybody who was involved, all the people in the community who worked on the film and especially Oscar’s family. It was awesome. It was an awesome thing to have the story recognized and for the Bay Area, you know?

JR: Can you talk about your work with Forest Whittaker and what does Forest Whittaker do in the film?

Ryan Coogler, Forest Whitaker accept Un Certain Regard Future Prize at Cannes Film Festival 052513
Ryan Coogler and Forest Whitaker accept the Un Certain Regard Future Prize at the Cannes Film Festival on May 25.
RC: Forest was a producer on the film. I actually pitched the product to him and his production company, and they were the ones who moved forward and helped me get the film made. It was independently financed, very small scale. That’s one of the reasons why it was best to keep the story contained to Oscar’s personal life, know what I mean? It wasn’t like we had a maximum budget to be able to achieve everything, so it was very advantageous to be focused. Forest Whittaker’s company was the company that stepped up and said we want to help you make this film.

JR: What was the experience working with Forest Whittaker like, with you just coming out of film school and him being a veteran, one of the better-known Black actors in the game today? What was that like?

RC: It was amazing, and he’s also an incredible producer and director in his own right, and he was a great mentor for somebody to talk to when the going got rough, you know? We’re still dealing with a lot of things in terms of getting an early release, you know. He’s still an incredible asset man, and it’s like having a great coach and advocate.

He was working on a lot of stuff at the time. He’s a really busy dude. The movie called “The Butler” he was filming while we were shooting, but every time I needed to talk to him he was always there to offer insight and advice. He was dealing with a lot of other things.

He does a lot of peace work too. He does a lot of conflict resolution work overseas and domestically, and I think that’s what attracted him to this project, man. The story is about one thing and what I wanted people to take away from it was it was about humanity.

It’s about how people treat each other, whether it’s somebody you’ve known your whole life or whether it’s somebody you just met, whether it’s somebody you love or somebody you hate, you know what I mean? I think it’s about how we treat each other, which directly influences things like this happening, what happens after things like this, how we view people.

And Forest is somebody who was all about that, so it was great having him in our corner as opposed to somebody who just cares about making money, who just cares about certain things that are profitable. Had it been somebody else, my movie may not have ever been made because he cared about conflict resolution and he could encourage discussion, could encourage constructive things and healing processes, you know, that kind of thing, so it was great to do a movie with him.

JR: Ryan, how did the Oscar Grant family respond to the movie?

Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan, Melanie Diaz stars of GÇÿFruitvaleGÇÖ at Cannes 052513
Michael B. Jordan, who plays Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale,” poses with his co-stars, Octavia Spencer, who plays his mother, and Melanie Diaz, who plays his fiancée, Sophina, at the Cannes Film Festival.
RC: Very positively. Obviously, I was able to show it to members of his family. Obviously, it was a traumatic thing they went through, and to watch a film detailing that is emotionally rough. But their reaction to our work was very encouraging for us, as artists. We were trying to capture that moment through artistic representation of that moment, know what I mean, dealing with his life and the things that he was struggling through. But the actors put their hearts and souls into it, and I think at the end they felt it was very encouraging.

JR: I know that the Weinstein brothers bought the rights to your film and most recently the Weinstein brothers put out “Django.” Can you just talk a little about what does that mean? Do you have any say in the film for those of us who are not in the film world and don’t totally understand what that means? Did you just get breaded out and you walked away from the film? How does that work?

RC: I didn’t get breaded out at all. When they purchased the rights from the production company, which I was basically an employee – I’m a young filmmaker coming up, so that’s part of the deal, know what I mean? So I’m still learning about the rules and how things work as well myself, you know, and it’s been very positive dealing with them, and they expressed great interest getting the movie out into the world.

There’s nobody really better at doing that. They’ve done a lot of very successful movies like “Thrill of a Lifetime” – know what I mean, but you never know. They acquired the film from Forest Whittaker’s production company, but now we’re working with them in the process in terms of trying to figure out how to get it out into the world.

JR: Can you tell the people a little about how this trip has been – and I’m not necessarily talking about financially, but socially. You were someone who went to high school out here and you went to film school. And in a matter of months you wrote a movie, got it directed by Forest Whittaker, who’s very high on the totem pole of Black actors in Hollywood, and then later on the Weinstein brothers goes to buy this award-winning film, most prominently an award-winning film from the Sundance Film Festival, and they bought this film for a couple million dollars.

How has your lifestyle changed? How has the respect level for your work, how has that changed? I mean basically you went from a nobody to a somebody in a matter of months in the film world and also locally, just on the streets. I mean people I know that don’t know anything about film been talking about Ryan Coogler, Ryan Coogler. So I mean, how has your life changed?

RC: I didn’t know that was the case. To be honest, man, the money coming from the film didn’t go to me, know what I mean? So I’m still in the Bay. I’m still in Richmond. My life hasn’t changed much. I’m still around my family. My life hasn’t changed much, man, because of that stuff. I plan to always be in the Bay Area. I plan to always be where I came up and work on the project still.

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, Ariana Neal as daughter Tatiana in 'Fruitvale'
Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant talks to his little girl, Tatiana, played by Ariana Neal in “Fruitvale.”
We’re still finishing up in many ways, so to be honest it hasn’t been much different from how it was before. I know people I’m on the phone with is a little different, know what I mean, not in terms of getting the movie. Now it’s getting the movie out there, and through interviews here and there, know what I mean, now it’s not much different. I don’t know where they’re saying my name at, man, but I be pretty much be in the house, man, dealing with my family and my work, wherever that takes me, being down in Los Angeles every once in a while, and being in the Bay Area. I get a lot done in the Bay though.

JR: Last but not least, do you know of any films on the horizon that you are planning to work on?

RC: I mean, like to be honest, man, I try to write as much as I can, but nothing is set in stone. I’m really trying to finish up this film right here, still actively working on it. So hopefully I’ll be able to make more work down the road and go from there.

JR: No doubt, man. I want to give you a salute, man, and I want to be the first to tell you, man, that it was an honor to interview you not just because you’re from the Bay and all that but because you are one of our John Singletons or Spike Lees coming right here from these streets in Oakland and Richmond, man, so salute for representing and making sure that our stories and stories that are important to the Black neighborhoods of Richmond, Oakland and Hunters Point get a voice in this cinema world, so salute. Do you have any on-line presence so that people can keep up with you when they want to?

RC: One of our colleagues, Michael Wright, has one he handles and I think that’s at www.fruitvalethemovie.com, and I think the movie has a Facebook account and it definitely has a Twitter, know what I mean. But me, man, I’m pretty social media free, man.

JR: Alright. Well, thank you for coming on the Block Report, man. We’re probably going to call you at least one more time before the movie comes out. Well, thank you, man.

The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and kpfa.org: The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every other Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

 

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