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Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 09:22 am

Coogler and Jordan honor memory of Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station

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Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler in Chicago promoting Fruitvale Station.
PHOTO BY CHUCK KOPLINSKI

When he heard the news of the tragic death of Oscar Grant, aspiring filmmaker Ryan Coogler knew he had to act but was unsure how to go about it. “I’m from the Bay Area and things like that just don’t happen there. He was a young man, he was one of us and I couldn’t just stand by.” The young director’s anxiety is understandable as Grant’s death sparked a firestorm in Oakland after it occurred, prompting reform in the area’s police department. All of this was justified as the young man, after being detained at the Fruitvale rapid transit station early on New Year’s Day 2009, was shot in the back by a police officer before numerous witnesses who recorded the incident on their cellphones. The cop in question was later arrested, convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months of a two-year sentence. His defense at his trial was that he thought he had grabbed his Taser, not his handgun when he shot Grant.

Coogler’s debut film Fruitvale Station is a response to these events. It chronicles the last day in Grant’s life, giving us a portrait of a flawed young man struggling to get his life on track, which has been compromised by bad decisions and tough breaks. The director and the star of the film, Michael B. Jordan who plays Grant, were in Chicago recently, discussing the many pitfalls they faced in making the film and what they hope the film’s legacy might be.

As might be expected, Coogler wasn’t the only one who wanted to make a film about Grant but a fortuitous set of circumstance put him in contact with the victim’s family that gave him an advantage over other directors. “I was in college and a friend of mine who was a law student got a job at the law firm that was handling the civil case that the Grants filed,” the director recounts. “They needed someone to help organize all of the video evidence they had relating to the case and my friend recommended me for the job. I was hired, eventually met Oscar’s mother and girlfriend and ultimately was able to present them with my ideas for the film. I told them that I wanted to present Oscar as he really was – warts and all – and assured them that they would have a hand in what was included in the film.” Coogler was able to convince the Grants who made themselves available to talk about Oscar whenever the director needed assurance that he was being accurate and fair while making the movie.

Obviously, casting the lead role in the film was vital and Coogler had his eye on Jordan from the start. Though only 26 years old, the actor has amassed an impressive array of credits, having come to prominence as the young street hustler Wallace in HBO’s groundbreaking series The Wire, as well as having key roles in NBC’s Friday Night Lights and Parenthood as well as last year’s sleeper superhero hit Chronicle. Having gotten the role, the actor knew that a huge responsibility rested on his shoulders as far as honoring Grant’s memory was concerned. “I talked a lot to Oscar’s family, especially his girlfriend Sophina,” says Jordan. “I wasn’t really looking for a key moment in his life to focus on, I just wanted to get a sense from them of, not only Oscar’s positive qualities but his negative ones as well. The one thing I kept in mind as we made the film was that his daughter was going to see the movie one day and I wanted to give as accurate a portrayal as possible.”

What became obvious to both Coogler and Jordan was that in exposing Grant’s negative qualities, they might be playing into commonly held perceptions of young black men. “Some people still hold onto stereotypes,” says Coogler. “They learn that Grant dealt drugs and that’s all they see. They think, ‘He’s a drug dealer; he wouldn’t brush his teeth with his daughter in the morning; members of his family wouldn’t tell each other that they love each other.’ I wanted to make sure to include these scenes because they were true and present Oscar as he was which was a young man who did the best he could in the situation he was in.”

Jordan adds, “People forget that the environment Oscar was in was a dangerous one, that it was a place where if you made a mistake it could be a matter of life or death. We all make mistakes when we’re 17 or 22 but many of us are able to do that in a less stressful environment. In Oscar’s case, he didn’t get a chance to learn from his mistakes and do better.”

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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