Ryan Coogler at the Zurich Film Festival, 2013

Ryan Coogler talks about his Sundance-winning film Fruitvale Station: a dramatic reconstruction of the last day of Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed black man killed by police in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2009

How common is what happened to Oscar Grant? 

“I don't have statistics for that. But I know that the idea of being shot by a police officer while you're unarmed is an issue that is much more prevalent in black males than it is in anybody else. It is something that does happen, and happens all over the country. The biggest fact, and it is something I have statistics for, is that the most likely cause of death for African-American males from age 15 to 35 is homicide, and primarily gun violence. Whether that's another black male that's killing or a police officer that's killing them, that's the way they're most likely to die.” 

Recently, of course, there was the Zimmerman case. Is the law is too soft on perpetrators? 

“I think this is the result of a lot of problems. There's not just problems in the justice system. There's issues in society that mean these lives are at threat in so many ways and in some ways can be considered to be expendable. I'm in no way, shape or form an expert on those things. I'm a 27-year-old film-maker. But I know enough about these things to know it's a human rights issue. It's an issue that is not specific to any one area. These are problems that exist worldwide and they manifest themselves differently in different cultures. Looking at the States we're looking at African-Americans, males, and we're losing our lives very often at early ages, very often through violent means or through incarceration. These are issues that are multifaceted.” 

How accurate is the re-telling of Oscar's last day and how much artistic license did you take? 

“When I started, the script was only from legal documents, from publicly available documents, things people, different witnesses, said in the trial, from all sides. And then from there I got access to the family. I was able to do interviews and talk to them about things that Oscar told them in the time they spent with him. Once I had done all of that, there was a small gap in the day, which is time Oscar spent by himself, and there I took some dramatic license with a certain scene I added with the dog. There was also a character that came from combining two separate real characters. Aside from those things, it was all real.” 

Did you get all the help you wanted from Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) officials or was it difficult getting permission to shoot on the system? 

We got a lot of help from the BART, which was ironic. I didn't expect that. I think it helped that the film was about Oscar and not about the case. Not just about the shooting. The shooting is a very small part of the film. Even though it has a major impact, no more than 15 minutes is dealing with that in a film that's an hour and a half. I think they were also excited about the fact it was going to be made in the Bay area; that it was somebody from the Bay area who's not pointing the finger at anything. It's more about this guy's life and the people he was close to.” 

So they were sympathetic to the project? 

Well they were very interested in not being a hindrance to the film being made. They actually wanted to offer, like, an olive branch to the community. That is both to the film-making community and to the Bay area community at large. It was helpful that the General Manager that was there when Oscar was killed is not there any more. There's a new Police Chief. So they were very open to supporting the film.” 

How did Oscar's family react to seeing the film? 

“They came to the world premiere and that was the first time they had seen anything or read anything. I was nervous when they watched it and more than anything hoping that I got them right. You never know how somebody's going to view seeing themselves. And obviously it was tough for them because they were seeing things that not all of them knew about Oscar. Some stuff in the film, Oscar's mum didn't know. His family didn't know he was still dealing. So that part was very tough, obviously. And obviously it was very tough to relive that day for them, because it was not that long ago that it happened. But they were very positive and said very kind things about the film and about the performances in the film.” 

What impact did this case have in America? 

“Man, America's a very interesting country. It took me leaving the States to realise how different home was from other places. You got to realise when you talk about America that, spatially, it's a massive country. It's huge. So when you ask about the impact that this case had on the country it's kind of interesting how that works. It didn't get the national continuous coverage that other cases might have received. What did make it interesting was that the internet played a huge role in it.” 

People filmed Oscar's killing on phones, right? 

“Yeah, and you can still see what happened to Oscar on Youtube to this day, from several different angles." 

So what was the effect if not nationally then locally? 

“It kind of brought Bay area to its knees. It was right there in our community, man. It was something that everybody was aware of. Everybody talked about. People were in the streets marching and protesting in Oakland. And anywhere people caught the BART, they knew about this case. And the BART kind of runs like a vein throughout the Bay area, from the East Bay to San Francisco, so people knew about this. It happened right there.” 

What about elsewhere? 

“Outside of the Bay area, not many people knew. People who were tuned into these kind of things knew. There was a high awareness of it in New York, because in New York there's similar things like that and there's kind of a media time-line between New York and the Bay area. LA eventually became familiarised with what it was because the case itself got moved to Los Angeles, through a motion by the defence to take it somewhere people were less familiar with the case. So the case was decided by a Los Angeles jury that was actually absent with African-Americans.” 

There seem to be more movies being made about black issues that aren't just about, say, gang culture. We have had your film, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave. Is it getting easier to make these kinds of films? 

“Mm, I'm trying to think of the best way to say this. A dream of mine is to see media production, the people who are producing it, look like the people who are consuming it. And for a long time in the States that hasn't been the case. The people who are behind the scenes making media – and I mean artistic-oriented media as well as media produced for commercial purposes - they've been kind of homogeneous. They've looked the same way. No matter what the subject matter was about, it was coming from this certain perspective. So I'd like to see the day when there are more female filmmakers. More African-American filmmakers. More Asian filmmakers. More Hispanic-American filmmakers. I would love to see that day because there are people like that. There are stories like that that need to be told and I think art would be better for it. I think people consuming it would be better for it and more knowledgeable.” 

So are things changing? 

"I think what happened in this last year, not just on the scale of these films that are getting distribution, but also in the independent landscape, having gone to Sundance and to these other film festivals I met some of these other filmmakers that are coming up. Incredibly talented female filmmakers. Incredibly talented Asian-American filmmakers. Destin Crettin made this film Short Term 12 which is exceptional. Meeting these people, it brings huge excitement to me as somebody who watches film to see stuff from these perspectives, and to see a diversity of perspectives that are behind the camera. And in terms of the timing, I'm not sure why all these films are coming out at the same time. I think if anything it's coincidence.” 

Money is the ultimate deciding factor? 

“This is the thing. When it comes to money, film is the most expensive art form to make. Maybe building buildings, architecture, is something that's close to how expensive it is to make cinema. But cinema isn't painting, it's not music, it's something that takes a lot of money to do. And they weigh the risk and if something is proven not to make its money back, then people aren't going to put money into it. So my hope is that people see that these films are worth putting money into. That it's worth supporting these filmmakers that come from different backgrounds and different perspectives. And I hope it starts a trend of that direction.” 

At the moment these films are all being made independently, aren't they? The Butler was an independent film. So it's not cracking the system, as it were. 

I think it's actually a good thing that these films were made independently. I know 12 Years was. I know our film was. We'd have had a tough time getting our film made with a studio.” 

Do you think the existence of these films suggests that the issue of race in America still isn't being dealt with properly? 

Oh man, it's so complex. It's a complex situation. And it's a situation that's existed since the country's been. African-Americans have been there since the beginning of the country, so it's a situation with a long history.” 

These seem to come in waves so that's why I'm asking. 

I think it will take a lot to resolve these issues. The issues keep changing. They keep morphing. You look back to what African-Americans were dealing with 50 years ago and it's very different from what we're dealing with right now. It takes on different characteristics. Now you have an African-American president and we still have young African-American men being killed in the streets, and life goes on. It's this huge complex thing to deal with and this huge complex thing to look at and it's difficult to point at what the solution is. And nobody wants to point the finger at themselves in the situation. Nobody involved does. Everybody wants to point the finger away. So it's something that as a country we've got to deal with, and as a people more than anything.”

 Fruitvale Station screens at Sundance London April 26th & 27th 

Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014

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