How ‘Fruitvale’ Director Ryan Coogler Brought Real Life to the Big Screen

Oscar Grant was murdered by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer on new year's day four years ago. His story is once again making international headlines thanks to a young director's film that recounts Grant's last 24-hours.

By Jorge Rivas Jan 28, 2013

The dramatic film "Fruitvale" won both the audience award and the grand jury prizes Saturday at the Sundance Awards. The film was written and directed by a 26-year-old Bay Area native Ryan Coogler who brings a unique experience to the entertainment industry.

"This project was about humanity, about human beings and how we treat each other; how we treat the people that we love the most, and how we treat the people that we don’t know," the 26-year-old said as he accepted the grand jury prize. "To get this award means that it had a profound impact on the audience that saw it, on the people that were responsible for picking it up. And this goes back to my home, to the Bay Area, where Oscar Grant lived, breathed, slept, loved, fought, had fun, and survived for 22 years." Coogler calls the film a "love letter to the Bay Area."

The film, produced by Forest Whitaker’s production company Significant Productions, was shot in just 20-days in and around Oakland.

"This story is a story I couldn’t see shooting anywhere else," Coogler explained in a recent interview with the San Francisco Film Society. "I felt like I would never be able to forgive myself and that my community would of never been able to forgive me if I would’ve shot five seconds of it anywhere else other than where it actually happened."

Coogler brings a unique perspective to the film industry because he grew in the area and he’s a black male who was the same age as Grant when he was killed in 2009.

"By the time he had passed away, the video footage of him being shot was already on the Internet. It was already online; we were able to see it. And, I mean, the interesting thing about it was–was that, you know, it was taken with cellphone cameras and video cameras from that time, so it was grainy, it was pixelated," Coogler told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. "Like, all you could tell, that he was a black guy wearing a certain kind of clothes, with a certain group of friends, and he looked like he could have been any one of us. Like, he dressed like all of us, you know what I mean? His friends look like my friends."

Several different law enforcement agencies police the city of Oakland including the Oakland Police Department, BART Police, Oakland Port Authority Police and federal police officers that work in and around federal buildings in the area. Coogler comes from a politically active family and works with incarcerated youth and has a deep understanding of the criminal justice system.

"Coming up in the Bay Area and being African American in a city that has a history of complex issues of violent crime, interaction with the police is always intense. That’s something you have to learn," Coogler said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. "My mom taught me at a young age that if ever a cop stops you, you put your hands up and freeze — don’t move. Because the wrong move could get you shot."

Coogler has been counseling incarcerated youth since he was 21, following in his father’s footsteps who has been working in the same profession more than 20-years. Coogler’s uncle is Clarence Thomas, of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and a former Black Panther.

Coogler says he’s asked incarcerated youth what they would like to see in films. He carries those stories along side lessons from film school he learned at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the same school that includes George Lucas, John Singleton, Ron Howard and Jason Reitman as alumni. (Yes, all dudes. Coogler says if there was one thing he could change about the industry is he wishes there were more female directors.)

To end this story on a more positive note, Oscar Grant’s family approves of the film.

Grant’s mother, sister and uncles attended the premiere of "Fruitvale" at Sundance, where they saw completed film for the first time.

"I sat right behind them and we all went through those emotions again and I talked to them afterwards," Coogler told Entertainment Weekly. "They were a little emotionally spent, but they spoke positively about the film. That’s something I’ll carry with me forever."