Last week, I had the opportunity to talk to Ryan Coogler, the 27-year-old director whose debut feature-length film, Fruitvale Station, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and has since received rave reviews. It tracks the last day of Oscar Grant’s life, the 22-year-old black man who was fatally shot on New Year’s Day by an Oakland police officer. Ryan and I talked about Oscar’s death and how it has impacted the way we see ourselves as young black men in America.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: Start by telling me what made you want to tell Oscar Grant’s story.
Ryan Coogler: For one, as a filmmaker, like any artist, when something affects me emotionally I think about it in those terms. It’s my way of dealing with my thoughts, my fears and my hardships. I think the same can be said with any artist. For a musician, you’re going to write a song about something that affects you emotionally. It’s the same with a poet or a painter.
What made me want to tell this story? It started with the incident, and being right there in the Bay Area when it happened. Being the same age as Oscar. Oscar was born in 1986. And I couldn’t help seeing myself right there. Seeing that situation. Seeing his friends—they look like my friends. We wear the same clothes, the same complexion. So in seeing that I thought, what if that was me? And that is where the idea initially came from. Being so hurt and being so angry, and so frustrated, and confused about what happened. The same feeling everybody had when they were out protesting and rioting. And people on the other side on the Internet. And seeing the trial, I feel like it kind of got muddled over that Oscar is a human being. He became this saint or this idol that people held up. He became a rallying cry and a symbol for whatever kind of impressions you wanted to make him a symbol for. And the other side has demonized him. He’s a criminal. He’s a thug. He got what he deserved. Personally, he’s not either one of those things. I feel like what was getting glossed over was the fact that this 22-year-old guy didn’t make it home to the people that he mattered to most. And for unnecessary reasons—his life was cut short unnecessarily. And so many young black men’s lives get cut short unnecessarily. [They’re not seen as] human beings by people who don’t know them or are on the other side of [this particular] conflict who don’t seem to care.
I was watching one of your interviews and you said something that really hit me—you said, “A filmmaker’s most important tool is humanity.” And that really struck me because you are telling a story of someone. I was the same age as Oscar when he was killed. I was 22. And I’m looking at it—us, young black men, our humanity isn’t considered, like you were talking about. And I’m watching the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin right now, and the way they’re trying to paint Trayvon Martin, they’re trying to reduce him to a thug or this dude who was high. But I think with Oscar, the thing that struck me, especially watching it unfold on social media, because I was watching it on Twitter and I was horrified clicking that link and watching this dude get shot for no reason. But it was the timing of it for me because we had just elected Barack Obama. And my political differences with Obama aside—that was a real big moment. That was a point of pride to watch, on election night, this black man be duly elected the president of the United States of America. But then, not even two months later, you’re watching a brother your age get shot and killed by the police and you just realize again most of us are not going to be Barack Obama, but a lot of us could end up like Oscar Grant.
You’re a lot more likely to end up like Oscar Grant, for sure. It was a trip because it happened.… You know the Bay Area is a really liberal place. It [votes] Democratic. And we kind of look at ourselves at being a leader in terms of that. A leader in terms of race [relations], and gender equality, and just in terms of acceptance because it such a diverse place. So when that happened it was like a gut-punch at that time, because we were on a high when Obama got elected. And people were feeling good. It was a very optimistic time. And there was a lot of optimism across young black males at that time. And it was interesting talking to Sophie, Oscar’s girlfriend, about what he was talking about on New Year’s Eve, and you know Oscar just got out of prison. And he had a young daughter who he had been away from for a year and some change. And what they were taking about was resolutions—what he wanted to do for that next year. And I think that seeing Obama get elected, for a lot of us, gave us a little bit of additional hope. And to have that video come was like getting punched in the gut when you’re reaching your arms up.
And what you said about humanity. It’s both a tactic and a defense mechanism to look at some people as full human beings and to look at others as not full human beings. You see that with any kind of conflict. You see that in Frisco, in the Bay and I see a lot of kids that are involved in [urban] conflicts. This gang right here, they have issues with that gang there that’s across the street. And when you talk to these kids about the people they are at odds with, they don’t see them as full human beings. They see their friends and their family and their side as full human beings, but over there, they see them as something else. So therefore, they’re capability of doing things that would classify as [subhuman] to those people. You see that same kind of thing with any kind of conflict, whether it’s the police and the people police see as thugs—especially with black men. There are so many people that don’t come in contact with black men. Whether they live in a homogeneous area that’s mostly white or whether they live in places where they don’t have to come in contact with them. So what kind of contact do they have with African-American males? They have the media and that’s it.
We can look and see clearly that there is no regard for our humanity in mainstream media—you can look at the way stories get covered, from Oscar Grant, to the way mass incarceration is discussed, or what’s happening in Chicago, what’s happening in Detroit with all these brothers dying in the streets and everybody’s basically writing them off. And that’s the big thing to me, watching the film, was witnessing Oscar’s potential. You work with incarcerated youth and seeing the potential in these young brothers, but policy-wise, and society-wise, people don’t want to see the potential in young black men. People don’t want to think that we have the ability to contribute to this society in an intellectual way, in a way that helps better our situation. And that to me is frustrating and infuriating.
One thing that makes me mad is that when Is that these young men’s lives are taken, no matter who’s [holding the gun], there’s ripple effect on society—the people that they leave behind are still here. Oscar’s daughter is still here right now. She’s going to go the rest of her life without her dad. And there’s hundreds of Oscar Grants losing their lives everyday in this country. The thing about it is that we’re dealing with a human rights issue on a massive scale. And you take people who have never met, never even spent time around African-American males. They see us as [criminals], they see us as thugs. They see us as this one-sided thing.
People who know us intimately [know] that is a small minority of us. People’s lives have value—they can’t be monetized to a settlement. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Lots of times people who don’t come in contact with African-American males have power over their lives. These are the people coming up with policy. These are the people who are called to juries. These are the people who say “I want to be a cop,” getting a badge and a gun and shooting up these communities. Protecting people who they never really come in contact with. So it’s a really interesting dynamic. I’m from the Bay Area, but I know for a fact, growing up, my number one fear of losing my life, which was an accurate fear, was getting shot. And nine times out of ten, the people who I had to watch the most are the people that look like you and me. Those are the people most likely to kill me. And the [other] people who [may] kill me were getting paid to protect my community. So it’s an interesting way to come up.
It’s hard to come up in that. But I am looking out now and I am seeing you and this incredible film you made. And I’m looking at Michael B. Jordan, who stars in it and the amazing performance he gave. And I’m looking at Frank Ocean. And I’m looking at Kendrick Lamar. And I’m looking at my boy, Saeed Jones, who is an incredible writer. My generation is doing something different. We are rewriting the rules. We are taking control of it and demanding and asserting our humanity right now. Whether people want to cede that to us or not, against the odds, we’re demanding to be recognized as fully human and we’re rewriting the rules for what it means to a black man in America. Do you feel that?
Absolutely, I feel it on so many levels. I’m seeing things from a lot of my peers. I am seeing cats raising their kids, [what I’m so proud of] is so many young black fathers that I know. You have people in the entertainment industry, people you read about [in the papers]. Seeing cats [realize] it starts with us.
I was told this by someone, I’m not sure who said it and I’m not sure what context it was side, but I find it rings true: the strength of a society or a community is determined by the ability of the strong to take care of weak. The ability and willingness of the strong to take care of weak. We look at the African-American community, for a long time those of us who be considered strong—black men—for whatever reason, haven’t done a good job of taking care of the weak. And we were doing things that render taking care of our youth and taking care of our women and our families impossible, when our lives are taken. Once you’re killed, you can’t care for your kids or your family anymore. When you’re incarcerated [for those years], you can’t care for your kids or your family anymore.
So what I’m seeing and what I am looking forward to, what I hope is that I can see as we get older is that our generation, number one, that we stop killing each other. Number two, that we do what needs to be done to take care of ourselves so we’re not getting incarcerated at a mass rate. Three, holding people accountable [for killing us unnecessarily]. And number four, that we take care of our families. That’s our kids—that’s our spouses. And I am seeing that with those people that have struggled with that.
Fruitvale Station is in select theaters now and opens nationwide July 26th.