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…
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.