Ryan Coogler works as a youth counselor at a Bay Area juvenile hall. The 27-year-old’s also one hell of a filmmaker. His debut feature, Fruitvale Station, tells the harrowing true-life tale of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by subway police in the early hours of 2009. Coogler sat down with PW to talk about taking a humane approach to an incendiary story.
PW: I was interested in your choice to avoid the aftermath of the shooting, focusing on the last day of Oscar’s life instead the uproar following his death.
RYAN COOGLER: Looking at the fallout, it was like his humanity got hacked off. He became a symbol. I thought if we made a film about his relationships to the people close to him, it might give some perspective to audiences who don’t know people like Oscar.
You bring us inside a community that isn’t often captured on film.
I was interested in proximity and intimacy. For some reason, human beings, how we handle things is based on proximity. We can function if something bad happens to somebody far away from us. We won’t fall to pieces. But if those relationships are in our zone, it’s like, holy shit—now it’s devastating. How many people have you ever spent the whole day with? Your parents, your spouse, a sibling or a close friend. I wanted the audience to have that intimacy with this guy.
Which is why you shot on film instead of digital?
It feels more intimate, more immediate. I wanted to capture this story on film because Oscar died on digital. Cell phone cameras were how we saw his death, so I thought we should watch his life in a more organic format.
There’s a telling moment when a dog is killed by a speeding driver, just another ignored casualty on the side of the road.
That was an important scene for me, and it’s been divisive. In the Bay Area, a lot of young black males have pitbulls, and in many ways, those dogs are very similar to us. You think about a pitbull; think about what’s said about them in the media all the time. Whenever you see one, it’s for killing a baby or mauling a family, you know what I mean? But people who have these dogs and know them intimately. They’ll tell you they’re the best dogs. Those dogs represent us.