Just moments before leaving his Hayward home, a young African-American man with a sweet face and a hooded sweatshirt, going by the name Oscar, leans down to kiss his young daughter goodbye. "Don't go," she implores him, and explains that she's scared because of all the gunfire she has been hearing in their neighborhood. He holds her close and reassures her. "Those are just firecrackers," the father coos. But moments later, Oscar is gone and we, the audience, go with him.
It's a scene of incredible poignancy, just one in "Fruitvale," Ryan Coogler's breakout success at the Sundance Film Festival, where the young director's first feature-length film won both the audience and grand jury awards. Before the festival was over Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein confirmed that his production company had paid more than $2 million for distribution rights, ensuring that audiences the world over will soon be seeing the fictional treatment of the real life of Oscar Grant III, possibly as soon as this summer.
"Being at Sundance was an incredible blessing," said Coogler, an Oakland native. "I was really humbled to know that people appreciated the film and were moved by it. But when you're working hard time does fly, so there was an element of it all going fast, and it was a bit of a whirlwind."
In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Grant, a 22-year-old Hayward man, and his friends were detained by BART police officers during a confrontation at the Fruitvale station after a night of partying in San Francisco. One of the officers, Johannes Mehserle, shot and killed Grant with his service revolver while the Hayward man lay face down on the platform. The shooting, caught on video by BART passengers, went viral on the Internet and led to several demonstrations and rioting in downtown Oakland. Mehserle later claimed he had been reaching for his Taser and got confused. After a much publicized trial that was moved to Los Angeles, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years, of which he served 11 months.
Coogler said he tried to stay as true to the events as possible, while remaining faithful to Hollywood's aesthetics. The result is a pieced-together account of the last full day of Grant's life, showcasing the young man's struggles and scrapes with the law as well as his devotion to his family, friends and the East Bay community.
"I always kind of saw New Year's as a time of optimism," Coogler said Friday. "And Oscar had a lot to be optimistic about: It was his mom's birthday, and he was recently released from prison. He was out at a good time, so it was a day of hope."
Coogler said he tried not to shy away from the negative parts of Oscar's life, nor to portray an overly positive, or simplistic, view of the young man.
"We tried to show a human portrayal of him as best we could," the 26-year-old director said. "Showing the things that he struggled with, like jail, and those that brought the most joy, like his daughter."
Coogler, a fan of documentaries, chose a feature film format because it allowed him to get closer to the characters within a shorter span of time. As part of his research, he contacted dozens of Grant's friends and family members, culling hundreds of text messages, some of which he then interspersed throughout the film. He also used real cellphone footage taken by onlookers from the night Grant was killed, accentuating even further the real-life quality of the drama. He poured through court records, newspaper accounts and interviews to bolster his work, and even shot the seminal moment of the film at the Fruitvale BART station.
BART officials, Coogler said, cooperated fully, providing access to numerous BART stations.
"The biggest thing is that the people at BART now aren't the ones there when (Oscar was shot); that made it much easier," Coogler said. "They knew our intentions weren't to cause any further strife, just to tell the story, and they honored that."
Coogler only used the real names of people who signed releases. Mehserle did not sign one (nor was he asked) and Coogler changed the name of the officer in the movie. A BART spokesman said no one from the transit agency had seen the film.
Coogler was also attracted to the stage presence of the actor who played Grant, Michael B. Jordan ("The Wire," "Friday Night Lights"), whom he had in mind when he wrote the script. It also helped when he learned Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer ("The Help"), had expressed interest at an early stage. She went on to play Grant's mother. Forest Whitaker, the actor and advocate for a greater African-American presence in Hollywood, helped fund the film early on.
Grant's family has responded largely positively to the film.
"Oscar was a human being; he loved people," said Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, who had a bit role in the film as a day care center helper. "With the movie, you see a side of Oscar changing on his way to be the man, the father, that he was growing up to be."
Johnson spent hours with Coogler sifting through her son's life, leading up to Dec. 31, her birthday, when Grant brought her some crab and the two shared a dinner of gumbo. In his real life as in this artful depiction of it, Grant accepted her suggestion that he take BART instead of driving. It would be safer, she thought, and leave him freer to enjoy himself.
Of course, he never returned home.
Coogler, who grew up in Richmond, was living in the East Bay at the time of Grant's shooting and, once the details of Grant's life began to emerge -- including on YouTube where footage of his shooting was viewed tens of millions of times -- was immediately struck by a feeling of familiarity.
"We saw ourselves in Oscar and that was enough to make it personal for me," Coogler said. "I think that it all boils down to people not recognizing the humanity of the people they're at odds with.
"You see that with black-on-black violence, with police brutality. You see that with any kind of violence."
Particularly special for Coogler was the opportunity to showcase the diversity of his beloved Bay Area to wider audiences.
"Making this film made me fall in love with home all over again," he said. "It's a love letter to Bay Area culture, to all the things that make us who we are."
And though Coogler recognizes that not all audiences will like the film -- especially at home where Grant's shooting had massive political and economic reverberations -- he hopes it can lead to a sense of healing and closure.
"The biggest thing for me in telling the story is the fact that whatever happened, Oscar was still a human being, and his life mattered to certain people, just like everybody's life matters," Coogler said. "If we could all look at everybody else as lives that mattered, even our enemies, it would cure a lot of the violence that exists."