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Immortal Beloved: Director Ryan Coogler Works On a Truer Myth of Oscar Grant 

Friday, Jul 12 2013

Four years have passed since 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was shot by a transit police officer at the Fruitvale BART station, while lying prostrate and handcuffed on the eastbound platform. But the incident still lingers, just as Grant's face shines from a mural in the city's downtown corridor. In Oakland, Grant's become a local folk hero. Some people consider him a martyr. The real story is a lot more complicated.

To understand the social magnitude of Oscar Grant's death, you have to know a bit about the timing — right before Obama's inauguration, right at the moment cellphones were allowing ordinary people to break news and keep officials in check — and a bit about Oakland's history of resentment toward its police force. Nationally, Grant never got the same level of media attention as Trayvon Martin or even Sean Bell, but at home his face has appeared on so many protest fliers that it's embedded in the city's political iconography. Artists have treated him as a muse; guitar balladeers have sung about him in stairwells; poets have turned the phrase "I am Oscar Grant" into a mantra and a credo. When protesters from the Occupy movement commandeered a large patch of grass outside Oakland City Hall, they rechristened it "Oscar Grant Plaza."

And now Grant is the subject of a Hollywood film, named for the place he died, Fruitvale Station, which opens this week in New York, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. Made by a young director who grew up in Oakland and has many friends in common with Grant, it's jerked a Bay Area legend into the national psyche.

Rookie filmmaker Ryan Coogler was home for Christmas break the night Grant was shot, on New Year's Eve 2008. Like everyone else, he learned about the incident in fragments. Coogler happened to be working security for a rave in San Francisco when a friend called to say the trains had shut down in Oakland. "He said someone got shot," Coogler recalls, rubbing his eyes dismally during a press junket at Berkeley's Claremont Hotel, two weeks before the film's opening. He remembers going home and watching cellphone videos of the shooting on YouTube after they'd gone viral.

Raw as they were, the videos conveyed a perfect parable of police corruption, racial inequality, and the public's new ability to document it. Grant was black and unarmed; the BART cop white. Public trust in law enforcement had already eroded after the famed Riders case of 2000, which accused four Oakland cops of unlawfully beating and planting evidence on suspects. Grant's death was the last straw; within a few days of the incident, riots erupted in downtown Oakland. Coogler witnessed the events from afar, but didn't participate. He felt embattled.

"I wanted to do something, not just about it, but something that could help keep these things from happening," the director says. "You know what I mean?"

Coogler had a friend, Ephraim Walker, who grew up in Grant's Fruitvale neighborhood and who attended law school at USC at the same time Coogler was completing the film program. Coogler had loosely pitched the Grant biopic to Walker, who cottoned to the idea but put it away until after he graduated. In 2010, Walker moved back to Oakland to apprentice with civil rights attorney John Burris, who represented Grant's family and friends in a series of lawsuits against BART. One day Walker called Coogler and asked if he was still pursuing the film; Burris needed help organizing footage of the crime scene.

The seeds of Fruitvale Station, which snagged two awards at Sundance, came from bits of scavenged video that Coogler edited into a larger narrative. He decided to compress the film into a single day, Grant's last, but include enough detail to reveal more about the slain man's character, and about the larger issues that precipitated from his death.

Before graduating from USC, Coogler sold the idea to actor-director Forest Whitaker, who was scouting for new talent at the time. Whitaker watched Coogler's portfolio of student shorts, decided the young director had chops, and agreed to executive-produce the film. He also helped Coogler secure top-notch Hollywood talent to populate it. Michael B. Jordan of The Wire stars as Grant, while indie starlet Melonie Diaz plays Grant's girlfriend, Sophina Mesa. Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer plays Grant's mother, Wanda Jackson.

Having those tent-pole names gave the film Hollywood cachet, although Coogler says he took pains to prevent it from becoming a standard tearjerker. The tough part was creating a sympathetic portrait of Grant that didn't just regurgitate the stuff of urban legend. Coogler wanted Grant's defects to come through as well; he wanted Grant to be handsome, and sweet, and likable, but also flawed enough to be believed.

The director had a daunting task ahead, given that Fruitvale Station might become the official Oscar Grant narrative — the one that locks in a lot of conceptions of who Grant really was. Coogler felt that burden, and says he tried as hard as possible to create a realistic tick-tock of Grant's last day.

To that end, the director culled events from court documents — both the criminal case against the shooter, Johannes Mehserle (who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter), and the civil suits that Grant's family and friends waged against BART — and patched them together, paying particularly close attention to the testimonials from Grant's friends and family. Burris helped connect Coogler to Grant's mother and girlfriend, with the idea that both would provide a more complex and checkered portrait of the young man than public myth allowed.

But getting to the truth was tricky, since Coogler evidently had his own motivations. He says he wanted to create a social allegory that wasn't a panegyric; it seems he also wanted Fruitvale Station to say something about cop corruption and the disparities of urban life, but package it in a way that a wider audience would accept. Meanwhile, Grant's family wanted to cement a narrative they'd spun during Mehserle's trial, at a time when the BART cop's defense lawyers were raising questions about Grant's character.

The defense tried to deflect a murder charge by portraying Grant as a career criminal who often needed to be subdued by police officers; Grant's family countered with their own stories of Grant as a family man who'd come up hard, but was trying to do better. Over the course of the trial, they created a character sketch that Coogler would ultimately replicate.

Sure, Grant was flawed, family members say. He'd been an adulterer, earned a rap sheet, held a string of jobs at fast-food joints and small grocers (in the film he works at a fish market) but had trouble keeping them. And there's no question he ran with the wrong crowd. Yet the people close to Grant also insist he had good intentions. After cheating on Mesa, he'd tried to repair the relationship, promising to find them a home in Livermore with a backyard big enough to raise pit bulls; he fought with the matriarchs of his family but also loved them fiercely. On the eve of his death, they say, Grant was a struggling parolee with a heart of gold.

That archetype shines through every scene of Fruitvale Station, which falls short of lionizing Grant, but still participates in his sanctification. After writing the script, Coogler wanted to familiarize his actors with that storyline as well. The best way to do that, he decided, was to bring them straight to the source. Whitaker secured funding to fly Jordan and Diaz out to Oakland a month before the shoot so they could hang out with Grant's friends, watch a basketball game at Oracle Arena, learn the local slang and listen to regional hip-hop. Coogler had the actors talk to their real-life counterparts to grasp speech patterns and mannerisms. He enlisted Mesa as a fashion consultant and had Diaz emulate her style — dyed scarlet hair, hoop earrings, a Monroe stud above her lip. He hired several non-actors to play Grant's friends, scored the film with music from local rap artists, and got his brother to compose the ringtone for Grant's cellphone. He shot all the BART scenes after hours on real station platforms, including the one in Fruitvale.

Although Fruitvale Station certainly has its own moral slant, Coogler structures it like a home video or documentary. He strings events together chronologically, using Grant's cellphone call log to mark the passage of time. (It's no coincidence that cellphones form a central motif in the film.) Coogler also takes creative license to fill in the narrative gaps when Grant was alone on that last day. During one of those stretches, the protagonist pulls into a gas station and hears a violent screech of tires on the street nearby. Grant turns, sees a pit bull lying on the ground in a pool of blood, and runs to chase the offending car as it races away.

Though it probably never happened, it's one of the most unsettling scenes in the movie. Grant picks up the dying dog and tries to drag it to safety — already too late. The clock ticks; the sun flickers. The streets seem quiet, though any viewer who knows that particular gas station also knows it lies in the shadow of the BART tracks, which means trains were gliding imperceptibly overhead. It's an eerie foreshadowing, a solitary moment in the life of a person about to die a very public death. And that it is an imagined moment is all the more appropriate for someone who, more and more, may himself be a work of the imagination.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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