For 'Fruitvale Station' director, film school and football pay off

Thu Jul 25, 2013 3:02pm EDT
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By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two years out of the University of Southern California's film school, Ryan Coogler is still paying down his debt.

That may not be the case for long. Coogler's first feature film, "Fruitvale Station," goes into wide U.S. release this weekend, having earned universal acclaim from critics, awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals and some early Oscar buzz. Coogler, 27, wrote the script and directed the independent drama, while Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker produces.

Add to that auspicious start a timely release. The real-life story of Oscar Grant, a young black man shot to death by a white transit policeman, hits theaters in the midst of a heated debate about race after the acquittal of a white and Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer for the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin.

The timing is just a coincidence, Coogler says, but he believes what happened to 22-year-old Grant at the Fruitvale commuter rail station in Oakland, California, on New Year's Day 2009 still resonates today, in part because of gun violence involving African-American men, as both victims and perpetrators.

Coogler, also an African-American from Oakland, was 22 when an unarmed Grant, lying on his stomach, was shot to death on a train platform after transit police detained him following a fight on a train. Coogler knew it was a story he wanted to tell.

"I learned at film school that, because it is such a difficult process, to always make stuff that really matters to me, to make films like they are the last film you will ever make," Coogler told Reuters.

And he learned to choose subject matter that is "not only close to you and impacts you emotionally but subject matter that you are curious about."

The film opens with the actual mobile phone video of the incident and the chilling pop of the fatal gunshot. It then jumps back to chronicle Grant's final day.   Continued...

Director Ryan Coogler attends a photocall for the film "Fruitvale Station" at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes in this May 16, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Files