Joseph Gordon-Levitt

'Fruitvale' a strong debut

The movie “Fruitvale Station” is based on an unforgettable true event, one already known to most Bay Area residents: On Jan. 1, 2009, police fatally shot a 22-year-old unarmed man, Oscar Grant III, at the Fruitvale BART station.

Cellphones captured the incident on video and it quickly went viral, sparking passionate outrage.

In an astounding directorial debut, East Bay filmmaker Ryan Coogler tells the story of the last 24 hours of Grant's life.

He did massive amounts of research, talking with everyone who knew Grant and accounting for nearly every second of his last day, Coogler said in a recent interview after the film premiered in Oakland, where Coogler grew up.

Still, there were gaps. A powerful scene where Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) tries to coax a dog away from a busy street actually happened to Coogler's little brother.

Coogler says the most profound thing he discovered in his research was the person who held Oscar's hand during the last minutes of his life.

“It turned out to be that one officer who was the most aggressive on the platform,” he says.

In creating the incendiary climactic sequence, Coogler took a simple, straightforward approach.

“I treated all the characters like human beings. I didn't want any of them to come from a place of being a caricature or a villain,” he says. “But people see different things. It's interesting. It's open for interpretation.”

Another bit of research Coogler did was to ride the exact same train on the same night, two years later, just to get a feel for the mood and what people were wearing.

“The Bay Area's a place where people goof off, talk to strangers,” he says. “And New Year's Eve is a holiday that's universally optimistic, and the Bay Area's an optimistic place. So it's ironic that it happened here.”

Seemingly a natural-born filmmaker, Coogler originally attended St. Mary's College in Moraga to play football and study chemistry.

At the same time, he took a creative writing class. His teacher, Rosemary Graham, was so impressed with his stories that she took him aside and encouraged him to write screenplays.

Opening Friday, “Fruitvale Station” arrives in theaters after an appearance at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, as well as at Cannes, where it won a Best First Film award.

Coogler seems genuinely moved by the response. “It's such a humbling thing when you work hard on something,” he says, “and then people are affected by it.”

IF YOU GO

Fruitvale Station

Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Ahna O'Reilly

Written and directed by Ryan Coogler

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 25 minutes

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