The writer/director also says his $1 million movie hinged on star Michael B. Jordan: “This film would live or die by whoever was in that lead role”
This year’s wave of movies focusing on black characters is a sign of progress in American culture, says “Fruitvale Station” writer/director Ryan Coogler — but “there’s still plenty of room to go.”
“You look at films about the African American experience, but let’s think about how many films about the Caucasian experience that were made in 2013,” Coogler said during a Q & A session after TheWrap‘s screening of “Fruitvale” at the Landmark Theatre on Monday night. “Nobody’s saying, ‘Wow, there’s a wide variety of white films being made.'”
“Fruitvale” joins Lee Daniels’ civil rights drama “The Butler,” Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and Nelson Mandela biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” in this year’s strong lineup of films exploring African American protagonists’ struggles throughout various times in history.
Coogler considered a number of factors to explain the recent boom, including President Barack Obama’s re-election and a new crop of filmmakers from different demographics.
But he gives the most credit to Moore’s law (the doubling of computing power every two years).
“I think technology plays a major role in it. Us making ‘Fruitvale’ for a million dollars, that wouldn’t have happened in the past,” Coogler said. “I also think that there’s still plenty of room to go.”
Coogler’s directorial debut has blasted “Friday Night Lights” alum Michael B. Jordan to leading man status after wowing audiences for his portrayal of Oscar Grant — a real-life 22-year-old Bay Area resident who was shot dead in 2009 by a police officer during an altercation at Oakland, Calif.’s Fruitvale BART station on New Year’s Day. Grant, who was on parole after serving his second state prison term for a drug dealing conviction, was survived by a four-year-old daughter and her mother, whom he intended to marry.
“I knew this was the kind of film that would live or die by whoever was in that lead role,” Coogler said. “Oscar is the kind of guy we often see from a distance, America never sees them up close.”
Although Coogler was the same age as Grant and lived in the Bay Area at the time of Grant’s death, he never knew him. Still, he was “sickened” like the rest of his community when he saw the footage of shooting that was captured on witnesses’ cell phone cameras.
He described the tragic shooting as “a punch in the gut,” because it occurred just months after Obama had been voted into office.
But it wasn’t just the circumstances of Grant’s death that inspired Coogler to adapt the final 24 hours of his life for the big screen. Coogler says he was bothered by the public’s perception of Grant after his previous clashes with law enforcement came to light.
“I wanted to make him out to be a real human being. People were trying to make him out to be whoever they wanted him to be,” Coogler said. “My thought was to make a film of who Oscar was, through the people who knew him the most.”
Ultimately, the film is about those personal relationships that Grant developed in his life leading up to his death, not necessarily his death itself.
“To me the film was always about love. The love I have for the community, and the love Oscar had for his family,” Coogler said. “I was hoping that love would come through, and since people embraced it, it’s a sign that it did.”
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