At about 3am on New Years Morning, I stepped out on the porch of a friend’s West Oakland home to catch my breath. I had been gigging on the dance floor for an hour plus thanks to the eclectic and simultaneous spinning of DJs Leydis and Treat-U-Nice following a great evening at The People party. It had been a good night, following a good year, and I was looking forward to what 2013 held.
As I took in the scene, I glanced up at the front window of the house to see a poster emblazoned with Oscar Grant’s now famous face (left). It read, “Justice for Oscar Grant.” If my memory serves me correct, that poster has been in that window since 2009, but given that he was executed by Johannes Mehserle this very night four years ago, its presence felt particularly heavy. New Years is a night for celebration, but any night can be the night a young man of color loses his life in the streets of Oakland, CA. In Oscar’s case it was at the hands of the very people who are supposed to serve and protect us.
In the time since his death, we’ve protested his murder and the sentencing of his murderer. We’ve also celebrated his memory. Now the saga is being brought to feature film by the Bay Area’s own Ryan Coogler. The young director from Richmond, CA is a former football standout at Sacramento State, and film student at USC. He has also directed three award-winning short films; Locks (Tribeca Film Festival, Dana and Albert Broccoli Award for Filmmaking Excellence), Gap (Jack Nicholson Award for Achievement in Directing), and Fig (HBO Short Filmmaking Award, DGA Student Filmmaker Award).
Last year Coogler was invited to the legendary Sundance Film Festival to workshop his first feature film, Fruitvale, named after the BART station where Oscar Grant was murdered. This year Fruitvale has earned the distinguished honor of premiering at Sundance in the US Dramatic Competition.
2009 was the year Oscar Grant was murdered. It was also the year that I met Ryan Coogler. I was living in New York at the time, and Ryan reached out to me in appreciation for a post I’d written about his amazing Oakland-based short film entitled Locks. Soon after it’s release, Ryan was traveling to New York in support of Locks debut at The Tribeca Film Festival. While in town he invited me to roll with him to see an early screening of the pitch-perfect blaxploitation spoof film Black Dynamite. Rocking long locks, a fitted cap, and our beloved Bay drawl and slang on the tip of his tongue, he wasn’t your stereotypical award-winning film director.
That perception still rings true for me today, but not in the way one might expect. The locks are gone, as is the hyphy era accent many of us spoke with, but he continues to challenge folks conceptions of what a Director should be. “We have a social responsibility, not just to entertain, but to make people think,” he shared in a recent interview with the San Francisco Film Society (below). His zeal to serve his community is evident in the content of his films, but also in his off-screen work with incarcerated youth at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall. And for the record, that’s not some Hollywood PR stunt, that’s his 9-5 job. His work with these local youth had a profound impact on his desire to tell the story of Oscar Grant right.
Coogler also notes that given the strong local angle of the story he had to film here. He recognizes that in the Bay, and specifically in Oakland, Oscar Grant could have been him. The film is written and directed by Coogler and produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi and Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker. Fruitvale stars Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer (The Help), Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, and Chad Michael Murray.
We here at 38thnotes would like to propose a new years toast to the memory of Oscar Grant, and the success of Ryan Coogler in bringing light and justice to Grant’s memory. Keep your ears open for updates about Fruitvale and follow the film on Instagram at @FruitvaleMovie.
Fruitvale premiered at Sundance to critical acclaim and the distribution rights were sold to The Weinstein Company for upwards of $2.5 Million. No word yet on when we will see it’s theatrical release, or how wide that distribution will be, but given industry buzz that it’s 2013′s Precious or Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Weinstein Company will probably position it as such. We may have to explore that coded language at a later date, but congrats are certainly in order for Ryan Coogler, the cast and crew!