By Angela Hill
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group
Some wonder about the approach. Others fear it might throw salt on raw wounds.
Audiences will find out soon enough when the critically acclaimed "Fruitvale Station" opens in movie theaters on July 12, walking its viewers through the last full day of Oscar Grant III's life and likely drawing a big audience in the Bay Area.
It's a risky proposition any time a film is "based on real events," especially one so politically and emotionally charged as the 2009 death of Grant, an African-American killed by a white BART police officer on the crowded Fruitvale transit platform in Oakland.
Then again -- despite its title -- the movie isn't really about the event at all.
"It's not really about what happened on that platform," said the movie's director, first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, during a June media event at Berkeley's Claremont Hotel. "The shooting is why we know Oscar's name. But what's lost when a case gets politicized and so divisive -- who was right, who was wrong -- is the deepest tragedy that this 22-year-old guy lost his life."
Coogler, who grew up in Oakland and now lives in Richmond, is a soft-spoken, deep-thinking 26-year-old praised for his deft handling of this incendiary topic, illuminating Grant -- a martyr to some and a mere street punk to others -- as a flawed, complex human being. His neo-realistic style of filming made "Fruitvale" a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival in February, where it won both the audience and grand jury awards. It received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
It's pretty impressive for a young director fresh out of the prestigious University of Southern California film school. Even more so are the big names who've backed the film: Forest Whitaker's production company; Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer ("The Help"), who stars as Grant's mother; and the Weinstein Company, the Hollywood indie powerhouse that gave audiences "The King's Speech," "Django Unchained" and "Silver Linings Playbook."
Coogler says he's keenly aware of the challenges and responsibilities of making a "true story" film, respecting the people involved by sticking as close to the truth as possible.
To do this, he pored over news reports about the Grant case, public records, the ensuing court proceedings in the trial of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, texts and conversations between Grant and his family and friends. He even got permission from BART officials to film many of the scenes at the Fruitvale station.
With a near-documentary feel, the movie follows Grant, who lived in Hayward, through that last day as he got in arguments with his girlfriend, took his daughter to preschool, sold a bag of pot for extra cash, bought his mom a silly birthday card. The fatal shooting is indeed depicted, but matter-of-factly, almost like watching the original video footage of the incident captured by BART passengers.
When Coogler first broached the movie idea to Grant's mother and close family members, they were concerned about the angle Coogler might take, fearing he might dwell on the drug and gun arrests in Grant's past. Since viewing the movie at a special screening in June, the family was relieved to see what they considered a balanced portrait of Grant -- not a saint, but a guy trying to get his life together -- and they've said it has helped them through the grief.
Fictionalized tales based on real events are hardly new. Long before Shakespeare wrote "Julius Caesar," they've served as a way for writers to point to larger truths. The list of modern movies based on real people and incidents is long, some of them more fact-based than others. Cases in point: Oliver Stone's admitted collage of conspiracy theories in "JFK" vs. Steven Spielberg's well-documented "Lincoln."
And it could be argued, the better the storytelling, the more difficult it can be to separate truth from fiction. Still, a film like "Fruitvale Station" doesn't necessarily deserve harsh scrutiny.
"All movies carry an enormous responsibility, an enormous power, whether they're based on real life or not," said Jed Dannenbaum, a producer, writer and director who was one of Coogler's instructors at the University of Southern California film school.
"Every filmmaker has to wrestle with what it is to be working in a medium that is seen by and affects millions of people," he said. "If anyone is well suited to that, it's Ryan. He has an extraordinary way of looking at the world and at people's behavior in a complex, nuanced, empathetic way."
Though the film addresses universal themes of relationships, violence and life's frustrations, how will it play beyond the Bay Area?
"If you look at the history of black imagery in film, so often the very best renderings of people of color are flops, like Gordon Parks' 'Sounder,' which was so rich in terms of character portrayal," said Benjamin Bowser, sociology professor emeritus at Cal State East Bay who follows race depicted in cinema and has long studied the ongoing violence in Oakland. "Commercial success seems directly related to the extent you can reflect racial stereotypes. And therein lies the problem, because that then perpetuates the fear that keeps us all apart."
Coogler says he indeed wanted to break through the standard portrayal of young urban black men as dangerous thugs. But he also made every effort not to demonize Mehserle either, whose character is barely shown in the film.
"I wanted to get past that dehumanizing in our society," he said. "There's the side that says, 'These are not human beings, they're thugs,' or 'These are not human beings, they're cops.' We need to get past that.
"All lives should matter," he added quietly. "Everybody has people who love them and who would be hurting and just destroyed inside if that person didn't come home."
While some question why the movie doesn't present Mehserle's side of the story, Dannenbaum says, "When you're making a film, just like in journalism, you have to decide at some point what is the story you're telling here, who you're going to talk to, what you're going to include.
"Even a documentary -- even the recording of history itself -- is shaped by these judgments."