“Fruitvale Station” director wants to humanize tragic story of Oscar Grant

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Ryan Coogler didn't know Oscar Grant, but he knows of many young African-American men like him.

Sometimes a sinner. Sometimes a saint. Most of the time, wedged between the two.

But also someone’s son, someone’s brother. Perhaps, someone’s father.

At 22, Grant, who was unarmed, face down on the pavement and with his hands cuffed behind his back, was shot and killed by a transit police officer in Oakland, Calif., on New Year’s Day 2009.

Coogler, a rising young California filmmaker, is the writer and director of "Fruitvale Station," an award-winning movie about the last few hours of Grant's life. It stars Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer; Michael B. Jordan, of "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights"; Melonie Diaz and young Ariana Neal of Atlanta.

“For me, the film is about humanity,” said Coogler, 27, during a recent stop in Atlanta to promote the film, which opened here on Friday. “The film isn’t about making a statement as much as it is about showing who this guy was and the people he loved and the people who loved him. If anything, it’s about the fact that human life matters … Everybody has somebody that means the world to them Everybody has somebody whose life would never be the same if that person never made it home.”

The 84-minute film has drawn praise from critics and walked away with big Sundance and early box office wins. It opened in three cities and grossed $377,285 its first weekend. There’s even buzz that an Oscar may be in the future.

The film’s profile is raised even higher these days because of the recent not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case.

Many people are drawing parallels between Grant’s case and that of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black youth who was fatally shot by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida.    The verdict set off a series of protests around the country, which continue this weekend.

The timing, Coogler points out, is coincidental.

There are similarities. Both incidents involved the shooting deaths of unarmed young black men. But Grant’s death happened in a BART transit station filled with witnesses, some of whom captured video of the incident on their cellphones.

“Nobody filmed what happened between Trayvon and George Zimmerman.”

Coogler, a film student at the University of Southern California, was in the Bay Area working security at a party while on Christmas break when Grant was killed. It was “a gut punch.”    They were from the same area, the same age and dressed alike. Grant’s friends could have been Coogler’s and, if circumstances had been different, Coogler could have been Grant in that station.

“It affected me deeply and it affected my community deeply,” said Coogler, whose mother is the director of finance for a California nonprofit and father is a youth guidance counselor. Coogler, who went to Catholic school, followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a youth counselor at San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Center, although he has not been there for about a year.

He remembers telling a friend that one day he wanted to make a film about Grant.

After Grant’s death, some people talked about him as if he were a martyr. Grant, who spent time in prison, was demonized by others. The film, however, shows a young man who is flawed.

Grant’s family was initially apprehensive but later supported the project. It also helped to have Forest Whitaker involved.

The film shows “just how often young African-American males die unnecessarily in our country, and it’s something that’s ongoing.” Not recognizing the humanity of others is at the crux of many conflicts, he said. “So often young black males are seen as a suspect or a threat.”

This isn’t the first time Coogler has drawn attention. In 2011, his short film “Fig,” which followed a young street prostitute’s fight to keep her daughter safe, won the Director’s Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award, as well as the 2011 HBO Short Filmmaker Award.

Coogler is already thinking about his next project: a high school football movie set in the Bay Area.

Despite the accolades, however, Coogler intends to return to his job as a youth guidance counselor someday. If so, he may be the most well-known counselor around. For sure, not many have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Oscar winners Whitaker and Spencer.

But the best-laid plans often go astray and it’s likely, in Coogler’s case, Hollywood has other ideas.