Before I headed out to Sundance this year, director Ryan Coogler’s name had crossed my radar more than once. He was one of 12 filmmakers selected for the Sundance Institute January Screenwriters Lab in 2012. The lab, located at the Sundance Resort, is an immersive, five-day writers’ workshop for the purposes of developing a feature film script. The script Coogler was selected to develop? Fruitvale, which won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, both for the US dramatic competition.
I could feel the audience’s anticipation as I looked for a seat in the sold out Eccles Theatre—Sundance’s largest venue—when Fruitvale played at the festival mid-week. However, I don’t think the vibe in the theatre was only for the movie’s Sundance buzz, it was also for the kind of story Coogler was telling. You know the story—a tough love mother pushes her son to rise above his circumstances, only to lose the battle at the last moment.
But you also know THE story. Fruitvale is Coogler’s researched and fictionalized account of the shooting in the back of an unarmed young man by the BART police at the Fruitvale subway platform in Oakland, California. The incident was captured on video by cell phones and posted to YouTube, making it infamous and leading to riots and protests. I remember when it happened, New Year’s Day 2009, and I remember feeling chilled at how technology had given witnesses the power to so easily record and instantly share something so horrible. Then I thought about it as a YouTube video, turning witnesses into mass audiences.
In spite of high expectations and the challenge of having a forewarned audience, Coogler drew us in. Cell phones are a strong motif in Fruitvale and Coogler incorporates them both artistically and strategically to keep the focus on the face of his protagonist, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood). That’s one of the ways Coogler makes you fall in love with Oscar. We watch Oscar’s expressions as he plays with his adorable daughter, cultivates his relationship with his girlfriend, and tries to get his life on track after losing his job and spending time in prison. Coogler molds his hero as witty and caring and uses his smile to light up each scene.
I’ll admit it, I fell hard. So hard, in fact, that I hoped Coogler would stray from the ending that I knew was coming. This is a narrative after all. “About 10 percent of this film is fictionalized,” estimated Coogler in the Q&A after the film. “There are some composite characters.”
Coogler is 26 and from the Bay area, where Fruitvale is set. He talked about his personal connection with Oscar’s story. This connection became stronger as he wrote the screenplay with the full participation of Oscar’s family and friends and with access to police depositions. At the Q&A Coogler thanked the teary-eyed crowd. “A film is nothing without an audience,” he told us. And with Fruitvale’s unexpected use of real footage, Coogler reminds us of that delicate and powerful interdependence.