Chattering effusively, a nervous bundle of energy, Ryan Coogler is like a human espresso shot. The 27-year-old writer-director has hardly had time to breathe since his debut feature film Fruitvale Station wowed the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, taking both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for best drama – only the fourth film in the history of the festival to do so. Following its festival premiere, Harvey Weinstein picked it up for distribution, while further prizes in Cannes and at the Independent Spirit Awards provided the icing on the cake. “Oh man, it’s been really intense,” he breathes.
Prizes are secondary, however, to the story in hand, a true-life tragedy that tells of the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American from the San Francisco Bay area who was fatally and unlawfully shot by a police officer in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Following a minor scuffle on a train filled with revellers returning from San Francisco to Oakland, the unarmed Grant was detained by police at Fruitvale Station. He was lying face-down on the platform when a bullet was fired into his back by Officer Johannes Mehserle. Grant died in hospital from his injuries. Mehserle, who claimed he had meant to draw his Taser rather than his gun, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but served just 11 months of a two-year sentence.
The film tracks Grant (played by rising star Michael B Jordan) during his fateful final day. Coogler reconstructed the story by studying public records and trial documents, while a friend working as a civil attorney for Grant’s family allowed him access to witness testimonies from people on the train and further court transcripts. “Every single choice that I made was based off research, and off things people told me about Oscar,” he says, “because I didn’t want to go out and invent this character out of thin air.”
Coogler, a film-school graduate with only a handful of shorts to his name before Fruitvale Station, developed the script with the help of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, then managed to find financial backing from the actor Forest Whitaker and his company Significant Productions. “Forest, he was pretty much responsible for the project going,” says Coogler. Other vital support came from Octavia Spencer, the Oscar-winning actress from The Help, who not only came on board to play Grant’s mother Wanda, but helped seek extra funds when financing fell through. “We couldn’t have done this without her,” says Coogler.
Coogler calls the project “blessed” and many critics have agreed, though not all. Forbes magazine argued that the film “tries to fit a halo on its subject”, Grant, pointing to two scenes invented by Coogler, in which Grant gives up dealing marijuana by chucking away his remaining stash, and nurses an injured pit-bull he finds in the road. “I don’t think he’s portrayed as a saint at all,” counters Coogler. “We try to be even-handed.” And indeed there are flashbacks to a spell in prison, including one in which a hot-tempered Grant explodes in front of his mother.
Whatever its flaws, though, Fruitvale Station is both timely and important. With eerie prescience, its release in the US last July came the day before the former neighbourhood watch captain George Zimmerman was acquitted of both manslaughter and second-degree murder after shooting 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin – a decision that caused widespread anger and protests. The institutionalised abuse of America’s young black men is an issue reaching boiling point, it would seem, after a number of high-profile deaths, from Grant and Martin to Amadou Diallo, unarmed and shot dead by four plain-clothes officers in the Bronx in 1999, and Sean Bell, gunned down in Queens on the eve of his wedding in 2006.
The difference between those other cases and Grant’s is that footage of his killing exists, shot on camera-phones by dumbstruck passengers and uploaded to YouTube. “The thing that happens is, these people are dead, so the other side are telling the story,” argues Coogler. “Imagine what would have happened if Oscar’s situation wasn’t filmed. It would’ve been reported different. There’s a certain self-preservation element that exists.”
Coogler is happy about recent changes in US law-enforcement policy that have gone at least some way towards redressing the balance of power. “In the States now, police are wearing cameras on their person, just so there’s accountability,” says Coogler. “It hasn’t necessarily deterred certain things from happening – there was a situation in New Mexico where a homeless guy was killed and the police released a body-cam video almost instantly, because the guy had a knife. But we’re getting to a point where there is going to be a higher level of visibility.”
Inevitably, comparisons will be made between Coogler and fellow black filmmaker Spike Lee, not least because Fruitvale Station feels like just the sort of angry, provocative piece Lee would have made in his younger days. The two have met briefly, and stayed in touch. “He said some kind things about the film, over text message.” But does Coogler think Fruitvale Station might be seen as the defining race-relations drama of his generation, the way Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing was? “That’s a tall order, man!”
Coogler can still remember how important Lee was to his parents. “That was their filmmaker. When a Spike Lee movie came out, they would take me to see it!” Born in Oakland, near where Grant came from, Coogler grew up with a strong sense of social responsibility, thanks to his parents: his mother Joselyn runs the finances for a non-profit group that specialises in community organisation, while his father Ira is a probation officer. “To be honest, where I’m from is like that. A lot of people in the Bay Area work in the non-profit sector,” he says.
He had the good fortune to be put through private school by his parents, but since graduating from college, he has more than put back. Since the age of 21, he has worked as a counsellor at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall, where his father also works. “We’d get all the kids that were arrested in San Francisco,” he explains. “I haven’t worked a shift in a little bit, because I’ve been busy writing. But I was just there showing the film to the kids and talking to them.”
Indeed he has been busy, penning a follow-up to Fruitvale Station that couldn’t be more different: Creed, a spin-off from the Rocky franchise, centres on the grandson of Rocky’s old nemesis Apollo Creed, who is slated to be played by Fruitvale star Jordan. It was an idea Coogler pitched to Sylvester Stallone before he shot his debut. “He knows more about that character and that world than anybody.”
You can imagine an old warhorse like Stallone admiring this raw rookie. Coogler has a winning humility, despite all the awards and acclaim. Perhaps the tragedy of Grant, similar in age and background, has given him perspective. His goal, he says, was simply to get people to think “about what happened to this young man” and consider their own neighbourhoods. “I thought it could be helpful,” he nods, “just to tell the story.”
‘Fruitvale Station’ (15) is released on 6 June
Getting ahead of the pack: Five other great films by directors under 30
Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles was 26 when he directed the perennial “greatest film ever made”.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
This saw 29-year-old Spike Lee usher in a new wave of black independent cinema.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Sofia Coppola got off to an eerie start with an atmospheric tale of teenage suicide.
The Tramp (1915)
The 26-year-old Charlie Chaplin’s first full outing as his most famous comic persona.
Knife in the Water (1962)
Roman Polanski made a lasting impression with this Polish-language thriller that launched his Hollywood career. Mathilde Ive