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Echoes of Trayvon: “Fruitvale Station” is a Triumph for First-Time Director Ryan Coogler

By Titus Falodun Staff Writer | 7/19/2013, 11:33 a.m.
"Fruitvale Station" is a harrowing feat for first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler. The film based on a true story stars Michael B. Jordan (pictured above) as Oscar Grant. It is now playing in select theaters in Atlanta. (Photo by TWC).
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"Fruitvale Station" writer/director Ryan Coogler

The Atlanta Voice's Titus Falodun speaks with filmmaker Ryan Coogler about his critically acclaimed and audience revered project "Fruitvale Station," which depicts the last day in the life of a black Bay Area youth who was fatally shot by a white arresting officer.

The Atlanta Voice's Titus Falodun speaks with filmmaker Ryan Coogler about his critically acclaimed and audience revered project "Fruitvale Station," which depicts the last day in the life of a black Bay Area youth who was fatally shot by a white arresting officer.

Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Darius Simmons. Trayvon Martin.

The list of young black males whose lives have met an unjustly and untimely end is long and unsettling.

And fresh off George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s death, director Ryan Coogler’s debut film “Fruitvale Station” is sure to add fuel to an already smoldering fire.

Premiering this week in Atlanta, “Fruitvale Station” retells the last day in the life of a young black male who was fatally shot by a white policeman.

“I was one of the first people to hear about it and see the [news] footage,” Coogler told The Atlanta Voice, recalling fellow Bay Area native Oscar Grant’s run-in with police in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at Oakland’s Bay Area Rapid transit station, Fruitvale.

Responding to a late-night altercation on the BART line, officer Johannes Mehserle and another officer tried to restrain Grant, who allegedly was resisting arrest. And as he was pinned face-down on the ground, Mehserle shot Grant in the back.

The single shot killed Grant, who left behind distraught loved ones, which included his girlfriend and their then four-year-old daughter.

He was only 22 years old.

An eyewitness captured the incident on a cellphone.

“When I saw it, I was shocked,” Coogler continued. “It hit me with a range of emotions, from sadness to anger to helplessness.”

Coogler, 27, turned his raw energy and emotion into a gut-wrenching but transcendent narrative that will undoubtedly evoke Trayvon Martin and countless others.

“My prayers go out to Trayvon’s family, because I can only imagine what they’re dealing with,” he said. “And it happens so much to young black males. That dehumanization factor is often what leads to these things. That’s what inspired me to want to do this project.”

Michael B. Jordan, 26, revitalizes Grant in his breakthrough and uncanny portrayal.

“I see a lot of similarities between Oscar and me,” Jordan told The Atlanta Voice. “He was a people-pleaser. As an actor, you have a lot of people in and out of your life that you try to please. And it’s a juggling act, trying to keep your personal life and your business life from the stresses of your family or relationship. And for Oscar, juggling life became too much.”

Jordan, who is known for his memorable teen roles on HBO’s “The Wire,” NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” and last year’s summer sleeper, “Chronicle,” stands tall as a young adult on and off screen.

“Oscar didn’t have the opportunity to learn how to handle life and handle himself,” Jordan said. “I had that opportunity.”

Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) helped produce “Fruitvale Station,” which also features another Academy Award-winner in Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), who is a gentle force as Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson.

The film may turn some people off, who will think Oscar Grant was too flawed to be revered in any way.

But Georgetown sociology professor and MSNBC contributor Michael Eric Dyson takes issue with this need to present a pious front when it comes to retelling history.

“I think the obsession that black people have with being so pure in ways that white people don’t have to be pure [and] non-African-American people don’t have to be pure is damaging and detrimental,” he told The Atlanta Voice.

“Life is more complicated than good versus bad or positive versus negative,” Dyson continued. “We got to talk about what is productive and non-productive; what’s edifying and what’s destructive. All art is not meant to make you feel good. The first role of the artist is to make great art.”