This year at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, one independent film presented by young African American filmmaker Ryan Coogler stood out among others. The film, Fruitvale Station, was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature and the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic film. Coogler presented his work with an unapologetic and raw look at police brutality in Oakland, CA. Based on real events, Fruitvale Station is the true story of Bay Area resident Oscar Grant, a young man, who, like many black men today, searches for his identity and purpose through trial and much error, while trying to please those around him. At 22 years old, Oscar Grant likely never imagined that his untimely demise at the hands of rogue and prejudice Bay Area police would stir an entire city and the hearts of film investors in one of the most impressive film festivals in history.
In an intimate interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, CA, actor Michael B. Jordan (of the film “Redtails”) sits relaxed in a roomy suite with the balcony doors open after a long day of press interviews. He musters up a few minutes of energy to think critically about the project with Coogler. “I felt like I was making a movie with my best friend” says Jordan. No stranger to dramatic roles, Michael B. Jordan impressed fans with his character in the successful HBO series “The Wire” as Wallace. Jordan made history with his role as Reggie in ABC’s “All My Children” after becoming the youngest actor to be contracted with the network in 2003.
When studying for the character of Oscar Grant, Jordan spent time with Grant’s family and friends, realizing that his subject was seen as specific and unique with each person he interviewed. Pulling together the many unclear dimensions of Grant, Jordan realistically portrayed the life of a young man, who, at the time of his life’s turnaround, was brutally and unnecessarily shot and killed by overzealous police on New Years’ Day in 2008. The story rocked the Bay Area and caused rallies, marches and riots.
Jordan accounts the lessons he learned from the life of Oscar Grant and his responsibility of performing a biopic on screen. “He’s not around to defend himself, you know…and I think that’s what defines yourself as a person – is what you’re doing when nobody’s looking.”
Director Ryan Coogler was fortunate to be recognized by Forest Whitaker, who is the film’s producer. As I sat in a separate room with Coogler and his fiance’ for the interview, the eager young filmmaker sat at the edge of his seat, anticipating questions and thinking hard about ways to approach his answers. His authenticity was pure and his level of respect was nothing short of a young man with a hunger for his passion, slightly overwhelmed with the response of the media. Coogler was still in film school when his project was presented to Whitaker, who immediately jumped on board after hearing the new director’s pitch. “Shocked” and “motivated” were the words he used to describe his first and only pitch meeting with Whitaker.
His next task was to cast the film. It’s not often that newcomer directors are able to pitch their work to Academy Award-winning actors and producers and hit a home run. But the blessings were lined up for Coogler, who cast Octavia Spencer (of the film “The Help”) in the role of Wanda, Oscar Grant’s mother.
Coogler wanted his characters to look ‘real’ and suggested to Jordan to put on a little weight to match his character. He wanted his characters to hold an everyday quality about their appearance, something in which the viewers can relate with and identify, a common practice in many independent films before they become glamorized for mass audiences.
The rest is now Sundance Film Festival history.
Tragically, Oscar Grant’s death and the trial surrounding the incident is not an isolated occurrence in America among the black community. Fortunately, Ryan Coogler’s work was recognized by the Weinstein Company, the major film studio that will present “Fruitvale Station” to AMC theaters on July 26, 2013.