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Fruitvale: Ryan Coogler’s Debut Film on Bay Area Police Slaying of Oscar Grant the Buzz of Sundance

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It was four years ago this month that Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American, was shot to death by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on New Year’s Day in Oakland, California. Portraying the last day of his life, the new dramatic film “Fruitvale” has become one of the most talked-about films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We’re joined by the director, 26-year-old first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who works as a social worker at a juvenile detention center in San Francisco. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJul 09, 2010Outrage in Oakland: Transit Officer Convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter — Not Murder — in Killing of Unarmed Oscar Grant
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City TV in Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, as we turn now to one of the most buzzed-about films here at Sundance. It tells a story that you might expect to see in one of the documentaries here, but instead it’s a drama that portrays the true story of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life.

Oscar Grant was the 22-year-old Bay Area resident who was shot to death on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, a police officer—by a police officer on New Year’s Day in 2009. It was the night of 2008 into the morning of 2009. The incident prompted widespread outrage in Oakland after cellphone video footage of the shooting was uploaded to YouTube. One video was downloaded half-a-million times in four days after Oscar was killed. The footage shows Oscar Grant and several other young African-American men being subdued by the BART officers at an Oakland-area train stop. Grant does not appear to be resisting arrest when he’s shot in the back while being handcuffed.

The new film here at Sundance that begins with this real cellphone footage and then dramatically rewinds to earlier in the day is called Fruitvale, named after the train stop where Oscar Grant died. This is a clip from Fruitvale, when Oscar Grant speaks with his mother about his plans for New Year’s Eve.

WANDA JOHNSON: [played by Octavia Spencer] You guys got plans for the night?

OSCAR GRANT: [played by Michael B. Jordan] Yeah, nothing major, though. I meet up with the fellas, head out to the city.

WANDA JOHNSON: [played by Octavia Spencer] Why don’t you take the train out there? That way you guys can drink and hang out and not have to worry about anything.

OSCAR GRANT: [played by Michael B. Jordan] I feel like getting over there and getting back; I don’t feel like waiting on no train.

WANDA JOHNSON: [played by Octavia Spencer] No traffic, either, you know? You know it’s going to be crazy going and coming back.

OSCAR GRANT: [played by Michael B. Jordan] We might take it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the film Fruitvale, which premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, featuring performances by Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant and the Oscar-winning actor Octavia Spencer as Grant’s mother. The film is the directorial debut of Ryan Coogler, who also wrote the screenplay. Well, Ryan joins us now, a little bit sick, but very happy about the response to this film.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Last night at the Eccles Theatre, I don’t know how many hundreds of people that place packs in, but it was packed. People were waiting outside, begging for tickets. Ryan, this is amazing, from living in your car to being a social worker at the detention facility in San Francisco, to what you have presented here. Why focus on Oscar Grant?

RYAN COOGLER: Wow. Why focus on Oscar Grant? Well, I’m from the Bay Area. You know, that’s where home is for me, my parents are, specifically the East Bay. And I was in the Bay Area when Oscar was shot. I was home from film school on Christmas break. So, I got a call, like most everybody else did, that somebody—that a young dude had got shot at the platform. And by the time I got back from where I was working at that night, it was early in the morning, and he had already—he had already passed away at Highland Hospital.

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. 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.

You know, so it was—it was several things. It was horrifying. It was frustrating, you know, because these things—these things happen—these things happen so often. And it was very, very—it put a sense of anger in everyone, you know what I mean? Definitely a sense of anger in me. And I think that’s what happened when people went out to protest, you know what I mean? There were several peaceful protests, you know, some rioting—more peaceful protests than rioting, but the riots is what got reported more.

But for me, you know, I’ve seen these kind of things happen before, instances of police brutality and instances of urban violence, and people riot and rally. And I never saw—I saw it keep happening, you know, what I mean? Like, I know the protests and the riots would help raise awareness, but I felt that myself, as an artist and as a filmmaker, maybe I could do something that could help attack this issue at the root, you know, through my art, through my outlet. Art has always been an outlet for me to get out my frustrations and to voice things I like people to think about, you know, so I saw that as an opportunity for me to contribute, you know what I mean, to society. And I got into film to always make things that promote ideas of social change, you know what I mean? So, it was a—the idea to make the film was kind of birthed there.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play another clip from Fruitvale, when the actor who plays Oscar Grant, Michael B. Jordan—he’s in Parenthood, for people who watch television—speaks with his daughter for the last time before he leaves to enjoy New Year’s Eve with his girlfriend and his friends. He’s speaking to his little girl as she stays behind—he calls her “T,” her name is Tatiana—as she stays behind with her cousins.

OSCAR GRANT: [played by Michael B. Jordan] I’m getting ready to take off, OK?

TATIANA GRANT: [played by Ariana Neal] You guys aren’t going to sleep over, too?

OSCAR GRANT: [played by Michael B. Jordan] We already promised our friends we was going to kick it with them tonight. But we’ll be back before you wake up, though. OK?

TATIANA GRANT: [played by Ariana Neal] No! Don’t go. I’m scared.

OSCAR GRANT: [played by Michael B. Jordan] Scared of what?

TATIANA GRANT: [played by Ariana Neal] I hear guns outside.

OSCAR GRANT: [played by Michael B. Jordan] You know what, baby? Those are just firecrackers. You’re safe inside with your cousins.

TATIANA GRANT: [played by Ariana Neal] What about you, Daddy?

OSCAR GRANT: [played by Michael B. Jordan] Me? Baby, I’m going to be fine.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the dramatic footage of Michael B. Jordan playing Oscar Grant in the film, talking to his little girl, talking to Tatiana, what turns out to be for the last time. Ryan Coogler, the first-time filmmaker—but we’re focusing on documentaries. This one, though, is not a documentary. Why, Ryan, did you decide to do this in dramatic form?

RYAN COOGLER: Wow, that’s an excellent question. I love documentaries. Some of my favorite films are documentaries. And some advice that an amazing filmmaker gave me, Alexander Payne—I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Alexander Payne or you know his work, but he told me that great directors should watch documentaries, as opposed to watching fiction films so much, because it’s real people. But I kind of have a theory about docs, in that it’s very difficult to break the barrier of having—of someone having a camera in their face, you know what I mean? People act differently when they know they’re being filmed. So the best docs often take a very long time to make, for people to kind of get used to the camera being around and begin to be themselves again. So, with the limited amount of time that I had, you know, I really wanted to get this story out there ASAP, you know, because these things keep happening. You know, I didn’t want to take three years—excuse me—to make the [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: I just thank you for coming in, because in our time here in Utah, it’s 6:00 in the morning, and that you agreed to come in—

RYAN COOGLER: Oh, no, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —especially at a time when—I mean, I have to just say, for you to understand, folks all over the country and the world, what it means at Sundance for a film like this to—I mean, this is the film that’s being talked about all over Sundance. In fact, it’s rumored that the Weinstein brothers, what, have bought it for over two-and-a-half million dollars. Is this true, Ryan?

RYAN COOGLER: They did acquire it. That amount is—that amount is a bit bloated, but they did acquire the rights to distribute, so hopefully we’ll see it in theaters nationwide.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this mean to you? I mean, you were working at a detention facility in San Francisco?

RYAN COOGLER: Yeah, well, I work—in the Bay Area, I work as a counselor at juvenile hall. I work with incarcerated youth. And I’ve been doing that since I was 21. My dad has been doing it since I was like—I think like three or four years old.

AMY GOODMAN: Your uncle, is it true? is Clarence Thomas, not the judge—

RYAN COOGLER: Not the judge, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —but the former, what, secretary treasurer of the International Longshoremen Workers Union [International Longshore and Warehouse Union]?

RYAN COOGLER: That’s right. That is my uncle. He’s been on your TV show quite a bit. That’s kind of why I came in, because I knew my uncle would be happy, you know what I mean? And I [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: You want to say hi to him in the camera?

RYAN COOGLER: What’s up, Uncle Bud?

AMY GOODMAN: But—and you were living in your car at some point?

RYAN COOGLER: Yeah, that’s also something that kind of—I saw on the news it kind of got bloated a little bit. I’ve never been homeless in my life, always had a home. When I first went to film school, however, because it was such a sporadic thing, I went down the Los Angeles, you know, and I didn’t have anywhere to stay yet. So I kind of had to jump-start in classes and things like that. So, for a few—I would say, for about a week and a half, you know what I mean, I was getting dressed in my car, spending most of my time in school, you know, until I found a place. But I bumped around quite a bit. I stayed with some Jesuits, you know what I mean, with a group of Jesuits that were in training, basically. I stayed with like a distant relative for a day or two. But I found my car to kind of be a safe haven for a little bit, you know, before I got an apartment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what was it like to direct this? I mean, you got—I mean, you have Octavia Spencer.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about her role in this film.

RYAN COOGLER: Right. I mean, Octavia was—you know, how we got—I wrote the script with Mike, you know, with Mike in mind. And I had a good idea that we could get Mike, because I felt like nobody had really used him for what he was worth yet, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: This is Michael B. Jordan.

RYAN COOGLER: Yes, yes, Michael B. Jordan. So, yeah, he had done, you know, Friday Night Lights. He had done The Wire. He had done Parenthood, as you mentioned. He had done a—he was in a few feature films that were very successful, but I’d never seen him in that lead role. It was funny, because every time I watched him, I would want the camera to stay on him, as opposed to going to whoever the lead was in whatever movie it was.

You know, so—but with Octavia—I signed with WME, after I finished the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. And my agent, Craig Kestel, was like, “Hey, you know, I think we can get this to Octavia for this mom role.” And I was like, “You’re crazy. She just won a—she just won an Oscar, you know what I mean? Why would she do this film for no money?”

AMY GOODMAN: She won the Oscar for The Help.

RYAN COOGLER: Right. And, you know, he gave her the script through her agent, and she ended up coming on board. She’s one of the warmest human beings I’ve ever met in my life, got a great work ethic, great energy. You know—

AMY GOODMAN: So you were directing this Academy Award-winning film star.

RYAN COOGLER: I was. I was. I was. I mean, it was one of those things you can’t think about too much, but it’s also very motivating, though, you know, to know.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, there was an interesting question last night at the Eccles—

RYAN COOGLER: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —when this movie played.


AMY GOODMAN: Someone raised their hand and said, “What about the BART police?” You did this on the—in the BART station.

RYAN COOGLER: Right. Right, I did.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it was the BART police that killed Oscar Grant. How—did they cooperate with you?

RYAN COOGLER: They did. They did cooperate with the film. And a little bit of history about what happened was, after Oscar’s trial and everything that happened with Oscar, pretty much all of BART kind of cleaned house. So they got a new police chief in there, named Kenton Rainey. And he was—he was much more open to us coming in, you know, and doing the film. Like, we made it clear up front that we weren’t—we weren’t going to compromise our script, we weren’t going to compromise what we showed. And they treated us basically like any other film, except we had a few more meetings, you know what I mean? But yeah, like, they cooperated, like they were on set, never where we were shooting at, but like downstairs sometimes, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: So much of this was about the cellphone footage—


AMY GOODMAN: —that so many people got when they were in the train—

RYAN COOGLER: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —as the real Oscar Grant was being killed, was being executed on the platform.


AMY GOODMAN: And that’s a theme for you throughout this dramatic film, right?

RYAN COOGLER: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: That has to do with Oscar just writing texts throughout the day—


AMY GOODMAN: —on his last day of his life.


AMY GOODMAN: Were those real texts? Did you know those from his phone?

RYAN COOGLER: Yeah, well—

AMY GOODMAN: Wishing his mom a happy birthday throughout.

RYAN COOGLER: Exactly. Like, you know, when we were writing the script, we went about it like it was a documentary, you know, researching and talking to people that talked to Oscar on that day. And we found out that Oscar was a person that, you know, loved to communicate. He was always around other people. When he was by himself, he was always on the phone with the people that he loved, always sending them text messages. So I thought that was kind of an interesting statement, you know, on society and on people, how we connect with each other.

You know, it was 2008. You know, had it been—had it been the year 2000, you know, when cellphones couldn’t record, you know, we wouldn’t—we would have never heard about this case. It would have been somebody that got shot. You know, it would have been the cop’s word against whoever else’s. And there would be no video evidence, you know what I mean? We have video evidence. And still—you know, still the offender got out in less than—less than two years, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go to the real thing, and that is Oscar Grant’s mother. In 2010, a jury in Los Angeles convicted transit officer Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter for shooting Oscar Grant to death. He was later sentenced to two years in prison, served 18 months, Mehserle acquitted on the more serious charge of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The jury included eight women and four men. No African Americans served on the jury. Members of Oscar Grant’s family expressed shock that Mehserle was acquitted of second-degree murder. And I want to go to a comment of Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, who spoke outside the courthouse after the verdict.

WANDA JOHNSON: That the system has let us down, but God will never, ever let us down. Though the system has failed us, though we fight continually, but you know what? One thing I know, that the race is not given to the swift nor to the strong, but to the one who endures 'til the end. And as a family and as a nation of African-American people, we will continue to fight for our equal rights in this society. The Scripture tells us that the rich bribe the judges, and certainly we have seen the judges be bribed. Certainly we have seen how this judicial system has worked on such a case as this. We couldn't even get six hours of deliberation. And we have a new juror who came in who had not even probably reviewed the evidence with the other jurors. But the jury had already had their minds tainted.

And so, I believe—I still remember what Dr. King said, that he had a dream. I believe that one day, as a nation of people, that you guys will not look at us according to the color or content of our skin, but that we will be treated right as a people. And my son was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered. My son was murdered. And the law has not held the officer accountable the way that he should have been held accountable. And I look at this, and I just say, like my brother said, to any other family who goes through this, do not give up. Do not give up. Even though this system will fail us and let us down, God will never fail us, nor will He let us down. And I will trust in Him until I die.

AMY GOODMAN: Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant’s mother, after Johannes Mehserle—Johannes Mehserle was, what, sentenced to two years in prison. I think he served 18 months. With us, Ryan Coogler, the first-time film director whose film, called Fruitvale after the station where Oscar Grant was killed, is the rave of the Sundance Film Festival now. I interrupted you when you were talking about why you did this as a dramatic film and not a documentary.

RYAN COOGLER: Oh, right, right right. Yeah, so, I’m of the belief that, you know, documentary filmmaking, because the subjects know that the camera is there, it takes a long, long time for them to kind of—for them to kind of like let that barrier—let that barrier go, for them to start to be themselves even though the camera is present. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to get this story out. And I also know that with fiction filmmaking, you know, because the characters are acting, you could get the camera extremely close to them, and they’re still being themselves, you know? So I think that when fiction filmmaking is done well, it’s a much better examination of a character, you know, if you can pull it off.

And I wanted this film to work in a way that lets you spend time with Oscar, and you see him as a full human being—on a day when he’s really trying to be the best—the best version of himself, you know, that’s possible. I think at the root of any issue of violence, you know what I mean—you guys had the filmmakers from The Square on. But, you know, I’m from America and from the Bay Area, where black-on-black crime plagues us, you know what I mean, police brutality plagues us. And these issues of violence are basically rooted in the fact that one faction doesn’t view another faction as full human beings, you know? And in the Bay Area, we have, you know, police officers that are paid to protect a certain area. And nine times out of 10, they didn’t grow up in an area that had the type of people that they’re supposed to be protecting. So you have officers that grow up in, let’s say, Napa County, where their whole—from the time that they’re born to the time they’re 21, they’ve maybe interacted with a few black people in person. You know, but what they see of black people, they see flashes of us: you know, a picture, guy wanted for this crime, wanted for that crime, shot dead on the street, shot dead here. That’s not a human being, you know what I mean? That’s a flash in a section of this person’s life, but not the full—not the full story. So these people are then given guns, you know, and told to protect and arrest offenders in this area, and they don’t view these people as complete humans. So I thought that through the guise of fiction filmmaking, we can let people spend time with a guy like Oscar, who never would have had, you know? And it was a blessing that we could bring this to Park City, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ryan Coogler, I want to thank you very much for being here, for directing this film, Fruitvale. It premiered here in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival. The awards ceremony will take place tomorrow night, Saturday, and we’ll be reporting on it on Monday. The film, again, is called Fruitvale and will soon be coming to a theater near you. Ryan, thanks so much.

RYAN COOGLER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, [Who] Is Dayani Cristal?

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