Can lightning strike two years in a row for scrappy, low-budget indie debuts set in largely African-American communities that are seldom seen on the big screen?
That’s one question surrounding “Fruitvale Station,” the first feature from director Ryan Coogler and a film whose release pattern is following the path of last year’s surprise Best Picture nominee, Benh Zeitlin‘s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Like that film, “Fruitvale Station” had a splashy debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won both audience and jury awards; it subsequently landed a distribution deal with a respected and awards-savvy indie studio, in this case the Weinstein Company; it secured a berth at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won another award; and it was given a mid-summer release on the heels of rave reviews.
It’s way too early to predict whether “Fruitvale” will follow “Beasts” to the Dolby Theatre for the Oscars, but it certainly figures to be a major player at the Indie Spirit Awards.
And as Zeitlin’s film made a star out of 9-year-old newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis, Coogler’s drama reveals new facets to TV actor Michael B. Jordan (at right above, with Jordan), who commands the screen in a way only hinted at in his stints on “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights.”
But where “Beasts” was a ragged fable with reverberations in events like Hurricane Katrina, “Fruitvale Station” is starker, tougher and far more rooted in reality. It chronicles the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old ex-convict who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer on New Year’s Day, 2009.
The horrifying event, in which the transit cop shot an unarmed Grant as he lay on the subway station floor, was captured on a number of cellphone cameras.
“For me, the film isn’t about the shooting,” Coogler told TheWrap. “It’s about the guy’s life and his relationships, and it’s about humanity. I want to make movies about things I’m passionate about, and characters that don’t really get representation.”
It is an accident of timing that the release of “Fruitvale Station,” which also stars Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz, coincides with the trial of George Zimmerman, another authority figure — a neighborhood watch organizer with aspirations to join the police force — who killed an unarmed black man, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Like the Martin killing, Grant’s death was politicized, with defenders of the shooters in both cases trying to paint the victims as thugs who precipitated the violence. (Grant had recently been released from prison after serving time for drug dealing.)
“Too often people like Oscar die, and it’s like the life itself doesn’t matter,” said Coogler. “Oscar got politicized, with people jumping on different sides of the fence, and politics can be a very divisive thing that boils human beings down to one thing or another. But for me, as much as art can be political, it can also bring people together.
“I would prefer that this film can be something that lets people see commonalities, as opposed to polarizing people. I hope that people who on paper would have nothing in common with Oscar can watch it and see that they do.”
Born the same year as Grant, 1986, Coogler grew up in Oakland and often rode the same BART trains as Grant, frequently passing through the station where Grant was killed. He was drawn to the case while at USC film school — and when Forest Whitaker‘s Significant Productions saw some of Coogler’s short films and met with him as part of an effort to mentor young filmmakers, the Grant story was one that Whitaker responded to.
Having Whitaker on board, said Coogler, was the key to securing the rights to the story from Grant’s family. “The biggest thing was that they weren’t giving the rights to me, they were giving the rights to Forest’s company,” admitted the director. “Although it was probably good that I was from the Bay Area – I’m not somebody coming in from outside the city trying to portray something in a certain light.”
Actor Jordan also got the blessings of the family after spending weeks with them prior to the beginning of shooting. “It helped that they were fans of ‘The Wire,'” Jordan told TheWrap with a laugh. “Some of them even called me 'Wallace' [his ‘Wire’ character name] for the first few days I was around.”
As he researched the case, Coogler said, he decided that the story could best be told by focusing on the last 24 hours in Grant’s life — a stretch when he was struggling to make changes in his life and looking forward to a new year.
The idea of zeroing in on a day, Coogler said, was inspired by a number of films he admired: Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” and Spike Lee‘s “Do the Right Thing.”
“When you make films with a very compressed time period, often you feel like you’re spending even more time with the character,” he said. “You’re not being rushed through large amounts of time but hanging out with them on the day. And that gives you a proximity that’s so often missing, that helps you see the human qualities in a person. The one-day format kind of lent itself to that.”
The day builds to a harrowing re-creation of the chaotic incident on the subway platform, where Grant and several of his friends were pulled off a BART train after a fight, and then confronted by BART officers.
As opposed to the rest of the film, where Coogler relied on accounts from Grant’s friends and occasionally fictionalized incidents, the subway confrontation was exhaustively documented by the cellphone cameras of a number of passengers — and the director said he "tried to stay as close as possible to what happened” while filming those scenes.
The shooting itself was filmed on a breakneck schedule: two four-hour nights in the actual Fruitvale Station, which wasn’t open to the filmmakers until it closed between midnight and 1 a.m.
For Coogler, the key to the scene was organization – something, he said, for which he curiously drew not from his film-school training, but from his days playing high-school football.
“It was intense,” he said. “It was all hands on deck, and it took a lot of planning. Those days reminded me more of game days in football than anything I’ve done before or since.”
‘It was the hardest part of the shoot for me,” added Jordan. “We had to move so fast and do so much, and it was overwhelming being right there where it happened. At one point I was lying on top of the little hole in the floor from where the bullet went through Oscar, and that was tough.”