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Interview: 'Fruitvale' Director Ryan Coogler & Michael B. Jordan Talk What Really Matters w/ S&A’s Sergio

by Sergio
July 11, 2013 11:43 AM
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Coogler Jordan

Fruitvale Station writer and director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan are currently on a coast to coast publicity tour for their film, which opens in limited release this Friday, July 12, and will expand nationally on July 19th. So when I was recently asked if I wanted to interview them, of course, how could I refuse?

Anyone who regularly follows this site knows that we have been covering the film extensively, including Coogler himself who told me that he regularly reads the site.

And, as usual, I try to avoid those obvious, lame, softball questions you usually read in interviews like: “What was it like working with so-and-so?” As if someone is going to tell me that working with so-and-so was an absolute nightmare. Instead I try to get underneath the issues about the film and the people involved in it.

So here’s my talk with Coogler and Jordan…

SERGIO There’s a video of the both of you right after the screening of Fruitvale Station at the Cannes Film Festival being overwhelmed by the standing ovation from the audience in attendance. What was that experience like?  It’s maybe the dream of every filmmaker.

COOGLER It’s impossible to express in words. In terms of the film, I can talk about myself as a filmmaker. In terms of the film, it was something that affected me very deeply. I’m not a member of Oscar’s family, but I have close insight into that community because we were the same age and we come from roughly the same place.

When I saw that footage (of Grant being shot) I saw myself, like a lot of people did in that community. I guess that’s where the film came from seeing that footage and thinking what if one of my friends was right next to me if that happened? What would my family go through if I didn’t make it back? Who would be the most affected by that? And that’s a question that I, unfortunately, ask myself all the time.  I have a lot of friends who have been killed or who are incarcerated. So it started from that place. And it’s something that’s affected where I’m from, intensely. I wanted to make a project that was specific to the Bay Area and specific to that environment.

But I also wanted to make it about relationships that people could basically recognize. Because we are all human beings and as human beings we have more in common than we don’t. Though it matters where you’re at, you know what I mean? People know what it’s like to have a mom, to have a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a spouse. You know what it’s like to be struggling with something internally. And people know what it’s like to be young and dealing with certain things.

So I wanted to make it true to the circumstances. But I hope that someone could watch it that’s not from there, who’s not from the Bay Area, who’s not black and recognize some of those relationships and see themselves and be emotionally affected by the film. I didn’t really know if it would work or not. So to be at Cannes and have the film play for them was really gratifying. I was humbled by it.

SERGIO But some will look at Fruitvale Station and say you show the problems, but you don’t give the answer or a solution on how to solve this problem involving young black men.

COOGLER I think somebody who is looking for a film for something like that, I’m not sure why they would do that. First of all, if I had a solution to the problem I wouldn’t be making movies [laughs]. I don’t know if it’s art’s job to show where the solutions are. I think it’s art’s job to make you think.

SERGIO But you have to admit your film is controversial from the viewpoint of Oscar Grant in the film. I’ve talked to people who, like me, have seen the film and some say it’s such a tragedy young black man trying to turn his life around whose life was cut short.  But there are others who say Grant in your film is this aimless guy with a severe anger management problem, and what happened to him he brought on himself. What do you say about that?

JORDAN Imagine if this was a documentary, all right?  It would have been force fed. I don’t think a lot of people would have watched it. I don’t think it would have had the reach that this film has the potential of having because everything in the film is up for interpretation. It’s like hiding the medicine in the food in a way. You make people feel emotions and make them think things that they never really think about I any real way. And it has such an impact on people they began to say to themselves: Why do I feel that way?”  “Why do I empathize with someone who I’ve never met before?”

Someone that I might have judged only by face value because he looks like me and they see people like me in the media who’s been branded a criminal, a hoodlum or a thug? Why do I feel for this man? Because he’s a human being and has things which everyone has in common which is what Ryan was touching on. He has a great relationship with his daughters, his girlfriend, his mother, his best friends, doing the day to day routine. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a late bill or rent that’s due or how is he going to put food  on the table for his family? How is he going to provide for his family? So you see how people can start to see a little of themselves in a project can spark people into thinking how can I treat this person like a real person, like a real human? How can I stop this senseless violence? The value of life goes up a little bit when someone can see something of themselves in another person.

COOGLER: I think a lot of the source of how people are treated depends on the fact if someone recognizes them as a human being or not, you know what I mean?  There are people who read an article about Oscar and said “Oh my God that’s rough!” and went on about their day. You can see that video of Oscar getting shot and say “Oh my God that’s rough!” and went on about their day. Why is it that when you don’t have intimate contact with somebody and can read about something happening to them and it has no effect on you? I work in juvenile hall and I see gang related conflicts all the time, I’ve seen somebody kill somebody just because they’re from another street. And when you talk to people who are involved in conflicts like that and you ask them about the people on the other street they don’t see them as full human beings because they don’t come into intimate contact with them.

And I think the same thing from people, who are from homogenous areas, all white areas, what is the contact they have with young African American males? They don’t live around them. They don’t see them in their lives. The only time they see them is though what? The media, in the newspaper or in a music video. So they’re only seeing a shadow. They’re not seeing a human being. They’re seeing a shadow of an archetype, a stereotype. That’s what they’re seeing people as. So when they hear about these people getting killed they think: “Well  they deserved it. Well that happened” .  But when you recognize as a full human being, which is what these people are. then it’s different.

SERGIO Well getting to that point one of the honest things about your film is that you don’t portray Grant as some kind of saint which would have been too easy and too obvious. He’s a very flawed person, someone who is immature in many ways with a major anger issues. But there are some people who will see that and say “Well, he brought it on himself. If he had behaved rationally he wouldn’t have gotten shot.” But other people will feel just the opposite. It’s a sort of d…d…

COOGLER: Dichotomy

SERGIO Right! That’s was I going to say. It’s that the right word? I’m not sure. (laughs)

COOGLER: (Laughs) Yeah I saw it about to come out your month. (laughs) I think that’s the right word.

SERGIO Well we’ll go with that. What do you say about that?

COOGLER It’s funny because Michael and I were just talking about this. I would ask those people who have that problem did he did anything that deserves the death penalty? That’s I would ask him because he lost his life. Did he do anything that deserved him losing his life? That’s the question I would ask. And I would wait for their response.

SERGIO The answer is, of course, no.

COOGLER: Depends on who you talk to. There are people who will tell you that the answer is yes. There are people who will say the Treyvon deserved what he got. There are people who believe that. So I can’t change that person’s mind. So that’s how I will answer that question. I disagree with you, but tell me what he did that desired him getting killed? And the reality of the situation is that different people have different circumstances that they’re living with.

For some people being 22 means I can do all kinds of drugs, I can experiment with all kinds of different things, run around with any crowd I feel like. I went to college with those people and their lives are never at stake.. But for other people being 22 means my life is at stake every time I step out the door of my house. Now it’s a reality for some people that when you get apprehended by the police you have to act different than other people do because your life is at stake That is a reality for some people. But is that fair? Is it fair that certain people who look a certain way can’t do certain things or their life is at risk?

SERGIO Which leads me to ask the burning question.  Why is it that black people seem to be more angry when it’s a young black man killed by a white guy? I don’t hear those cries of outrage and calls for justice like for Oscar Grant or Treyvon Martin when it’s a young black man killed about another black man which is way more common.  People just wring their hands and say “So sad. This is terrible.” I don’t see Al Sharpton or people out in the streets protesting or the constant media coverage.  It’s as if when a black man is killed by a white guy, he’s somehow ”more important”.  Regardless of who killed the guy, the result is exactly the same.

JORDAN: I agree! I think that, I mean it’s so sad to even say it, just it’s like we’re just sitting back and watching them kill each other. Just ending each other off.  It’s almost like it’s expected. Like they expect for us to kill each other off. If we don’t respect each other’s lives then how can we expect someone outside of our race not to kill us? We have been conditioned to react to these situations over time and it’s not right.

COOGLER: To be honest, Sergio, I think that black on black violence is the biggest human rights issue that African Americans have ever faced since slavery. It’s a major, major, major, major problem since the crack epidemic. And it’s kind of like a root from that. It’s funny, I read a statistic that since 1969 the most likely way for a young African American male to die is from gun violence. I don’t know if that statistic is right, but it seems right. I was born in 1986 and that’s biggest fear that I have today of being killed. And this is the sick reality for us is that I live every day of my life knowing that I was to be shot and killed that most likely it would be by someone who looks just like me. And chance if it wasn’t someone who looked like than then someone who was paid to protect me.

And I think that the loss of life, no matter who’s responsible for it, and I just made a film where a police officer took someone’s life who happened to be white. But I feel that the loss of life is the greatest tragedy no matter who is taking it. And until we treat every loss of life for the tragedy that it is, not only taking steps to hold ourselves accountable for that, but also taking steps to hold ourselves accountable for stopping it before it even happens, we are going to have major issues as a community.

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  • woh | July 17, 2013 6:00 AMReply

    Quoting Michael Jordan, "The value of life goes up a little bit when someone can see something of themselves in another person."

    That's the solution. If the transit officer saw something of himself in Oscar, he would be alive today. If Zimmerman saw something of himself in Trayon, he would be alive today. We need to all look in the mirror and see the humanity in ourselves and in others. #stoptheviolence

  • Lea | July 22, 2013 4:44 AM

    Thank you!

  • Former SEC football player | July 11, 2013 1:56 PMReply

    Ryan Coogler pump your story but the biggest human rights violations in the world are fair wages for student aged young adults and teens. Over 400,000 student-athletes participating in sports that are aired on television to higher viewer ratings than almost every piece of TV media talked about on this website yet these athletes aren't çompensated like on air talent. The commentators making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to talked the celebrity performing on the field or court. Imagine Beyonce performing and red carpet reporters getting paid more than her. Cheap labor is a human rights issue not senseless violence. So have young black men been responsible for 20 million deaths yet. There exists a demographic in this country that reason for existing is solely based on the brutality of others and the murder of 100 million people since touching down on this continent. Sergio you asked two young black men for all we know who have never killed anyone to take blame for men they don't know. Bad people kill people who they have access to. Just like the mass murdering young white men we have seen an uptic in mass shootings since Columbine. The only demographic answering for their actions are black men. So who getting let the fuck off the hook.

  • edi | July 26, 2013 8:24 AM

    Thank you...exactly what i wanted to say, people kill people they are in close proximity to, so if you have a community of African Americans most likely any killers living there will kill African Americans. The problem is the excessive use of violence built into the American psyche.
    And also as you said African Americans being the main demographic targetted by the justice system while others are allowed to get away, that was my main problem with the Zimmerman case, the law not performing their duties properly when it comes to a African American victim.

  • CareyCarey | July 10, 2013 12:35 PMReply

    In reference to the (below) less-than favorable remarks on Sergio's interview questions -- in the tune/melody/tone of Schoolhouse Rock's "Conjunction Junction What's Your Function", I have a response that speaks to my opinion on the matter.

    Wanna hear it... here it goes: "Question-Question, what's your suggestion?" Asking a bunch of shit that you might hide.

    "Question-Question, how's that function?" I got three favorite ways that get most of my job done.

    "Question-Question, what's their function?" I got "AND?!", "WHAT?!" and "NOT SO FAST!", they better watch out 'cause I'll spank that ass. Dirty but happy, digging and scratching, losing their cool and a button or two.

    He's poor but honest, sad but true,


    Sergio is Da Man!

  • Donella | July 9, 2013 7:46 PMReply

    I caught Michael B. Jordan's interview on the View with Whoopi, Barbara, and the gang. He's pretty impressive.

  • davyjc | July 9, 2013 9:58 AMReply

    Good interview, Sergio. Those two are quite talented. Your final question is the provocative one because it is the basis for their film. What makes this situation different than what happens every single day out in the streets of Chicago or Oakland or any place else in America? Black people killing black people. Cinematically, the making of this film is a no brainer. Show a life, show injustice, everyone knows it was murder = film affects people. Open and shut case.

    But does it really reflect the daily reality? It's almost like our own society is letting young black men off the hook having blinders on what is the real problem out here in the streets. Black people not respecting our own communities enough, when using guns has become the only remedy for anger problems, revenge, crime and misunderstanding. It's a tough subject to tackle and done pretty well many years ago with "Boyz in the 'hood" and "Meance to Society." But if those were cautionary tells looking for ways to persuade, that sure didn't happen. The problem has only gotten worse.

    I wish them good luck on the film and its reception but larger problems in our community persist.

  • Troy | July 11, 2013 1:36 PM

    So you think gun violence is worse now? Not in touch with reality are we. Young black men getting let off the hook, since when? They compared being killed by someone of no consequence to being killed by a government employee. That's the differnce. No young black males owning or signing gun laws. The child soldiers in Africa are firing guns provided by aid from white governments. Young black men are the problem because they kill each other at a higher rate. The problem ain't the rate the problem is the gun. Black got the highest new std infection rate but they are sourced as the problem is black men again. Black teachers are more likely to commit crimes than black athletes. But that is not the popular belief as black teachers are usually women. Black athletes on average attend more highly accredited university's than black women as well. Approximations don't matter the blame doesn't matter. Talking to people about not killing each other doesn't matter if they still live in a ghetto where viable employment is almost non-existent. Tht would be a grand thing if any of the older generations would have been standing up in the 80s when the violence started spiraling out of control. The youth of the civil rights movement gae birth to the free love movement(AIDS) which gave birth to the crack epidemic. While these young men who kill each other now had nothing to do with joblessness in the 70s and the 80s drug violence.

  • Langston | July 8, 2013 10:51 PMReply

    I didn't love Sergio's questions, but I did appreciate Ryan and Michael's responses. As an arts journalist, if you have a decent amount of time for an interview with an artist, you pose questions that evoke a range of responses. All of these questions were heavy except the first one. The "softball questions" are normally standard with us, so that the interviewee relaxes. Once they are comfortable with you, then you hit them with the more challenging questions. I actually wanted to hear a lot more about what this journey has been like for Ryan as a first time filmmaker. I would have also asked Michael about his preparation for playing Oscar. Sergio is a filmmaker I believe, so he should know that questions about craft are not only valid but damn near necessary.

  • CC | July 10, 2013 11:00 AM

    "The "softball questions" are normally standard"

    I despise the traditional cookie cutter questions. Get to the meat.

    Listen, Sergio has lived a little (he has been around the block a few times and this is not his first rodeo) so it's safe to say he is not star-struck nor intimated by those in the news. Consequently, his interviewing style reflects that of a person who could care less whether or not the star kisses him in the morning. I mean, he may drink Halle Berry's bath water and whisper sweet nothings in her ear (** hint at having a two foot coke can Mandingo schlong) but, he said it best-->"I try to avoid those obvious, lame, softball questions you usually read in interviews". And I like that in him.

    In fact, for my taste he's arguably the best interviewer here at Shadow and Act. I could name a few interviews which sets him apart from the rest, but I'll just say Tambay's interview of young Sweetback's daddy (Melvin Van Peebles) is in the mix. However, if my memory is correct, I believe Tambay admitted being somewhat "afraid" of Mr. Van Peebles, so that interview was missing the hot shots.

    The beauty in this interview can be found in the phrase "show me yours and I'll show you mine". In other words, Sergio's non-cookie-cutter questions required non-cookie-cutter responses. I'm just sayin' don't bore me to death with the same ol' same ol'. And save the slaps on the back for another time.

    ** Sergio used those words in the Cheerios post

  • NO BRAINER | July 9, 2013 7:12 PM

    I didn't like his questions either.

  • sergio | July 8, 2013 11:26 PM

    "How was the film made" type of questions you can find in any other magazine or media interview with Coogler and Jordan. I've seen several of them already. Just Google them. And as I mentioned he's on a nationwide PR tour for the film so there will be plenty of opportunities elsewhere to find the kind of info you're looking for. I'm not interested in those since that's what everybody else asks

    "All of these questions were heavy except the first one." You better believe it. I don't like to play around when I interview someone. I want to get inside their heads. My inspiration for doing interviews is Howard Stern, the best interviewer ever. He cuts through the B.S. and rehearsed phony answers and asks the question that you want to ask someone. If they get mad, so be it. Anyone can ask "what kind of camera did you use?" (By the way Coogler shot the film on 16MM. How do I know that? Because he said so in another interview I've read with him)

    "The "softball questions" are normally standard with us.." Who's 'Us"? Black people? Not here, not with me. You want softball questions go watch Tavis Smiley or Ellen Degeneres.

    "... a decent amount of time for an interview with an artist" Are you kidding? You don't do interviews do you? You NEVER have enough time. It's get in and get out because there's a bunch of other people right behind you lined up to do the next interview. So hit them hard and leave them dazed. (In fact Coogler loved the questions I was asking him and begged for more time to keep the interview going)

  • Ya'ke | July 8, 2013 10:36 PMReply

    Nicely done! I hope and pray that this brother's film does well and he continues to make meaningful work. Can't wait to check it out!

  • Yes | July 8, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    These two men look GOOD. Congratulations and all that ... my my MAH!

  • GoodLuck | July 8, 2013 1:27 PMReply

    Will Black people pay to see a black man gunned down by a white cop?

  • bb | July 8, 2013 1:24 PMReply

    Coogler is 27 years old...what am I doing with my life???

  • Troy | July 9, 2013 12:05 AM

    Don't worry about it he went to USC.

  • kirk | July 8, 2013 3:00 PM

    You' re right where your suppose to be.

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