If things had worked out differently, Ryan Coogler might have become an athlete. “Before playing football, I didn’t fit in anywhere,” he said in 2013 of his childhood. “My parents didn’t have a lot of money, which they spent on our education, to send us to Catholic private school in Oakland, mostly Black. The other kids had more money than I did. I started school early, I was young. So I’d come back to my hood and read.”
A fan of comic books — he’d sometimes come up with his own plots — he eventually decided against football, and a career as a doctor, to attend film school at USC. But during his time in Southern California, his hometown was in the news because of a scandal: the 2009 BART police shooting of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed 22-year-old Black father who was gunned down early in the morning of New Year’s Day at the Fruitvale Station. (Video captured Grant being held face down by police when he was shot.) Coogler didn’t know Grant, but they were born about three months apart and had both grown up in the Bay Area. “I couldn’t help seeing myself right there,” Coogler later told The Nation. “Seeing that situation. Seeing his friends — they look like my friends. We wear the same clothes, the same complexion. So in seeing that I thought, ‘What if that was me?’”
In 2013, Coogler unveiled his feature debut, Fruitvale Station, at the Sundance Film Festival, announcing not just the launch of an exciting new writer-director but also the emergence of a formidable actor, creative team and social movement. Now streaming on Netflix, Fruitvale Station is a modest, heartbreaking dramatized account of Grant’s final day on Earth, and its first-film flaws are forgiven once you recognize what Coogler and those around him have gone on to accomplish. Considering Coogler’s love of superheroes, Fruitvale Station now plays as an origin story for a major American filmmaker and his closest collaborators.
Coogler cast Michael B. Jordan, a rising actor who had been part of The Wire and one of the stars of the clever, low-budget 2012 sci-fi film Chronicle, as Oscar, an ordinary young man in Oakland who’s getting ready to go out for New Year’s Eve. He seems like a good guy, but he has his faults. For one thing, he’s unfaithful to his girlfriend, played by Melonie Diaz, and he can’t hold onto a job. But his mundane problems are constantly magnified by the fact that we know that this evening will end with his senseless shooting at that train station. Oscar’s not meant to be a saint or, frankly, all that unique: He could be any young Black man in America who (as this country has discovered again and again) can be a target of racist, panicky people in positions of authority.
The writer-director has cited films like 25th Hour, La Haine and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as models for Fruitvale Station — each takes place over just one day — but I also thought of Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s stripped-down look at a school shooting that, like Coogler’s movie, builds in tension as we prepare for the oncoming horror. The filmmaker was only 26 when Fruitvale Station premiered at Sundance, winning the Audience Award and the U.S. Dramatic Prize, and he surrounded himself with exciting young talents that would all go on to do great things. Jordan has been front and center in Coogler’s two subsequent films, Creed and Black Panther, but it was also one of the first films for Rachel Morrison, who has established herself as one of our best cinematographers. (She was the first woman to ever receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography, thanks to her work on Mudbound.) And Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson did his first film scoring on Fruitvale Station, later winning an Oscar for Black Panther. People tend to think of Fruitvale Station as Coogler’s triumph, but it was an achievement shared by many who have blossomed right along with him.
Jordan’s performance may be what stays with you longest, though. Playing Oscar as a complicated, vibrant, unfinished young man, Jordan revealed the vulnerability that’s always been central to his characters, even when they’re virile tough guys like Donnie Creed and Killmonger. (One of the reasons why people love Black Panther is that, among the MCU films, it’s one of the few with a villain as layered and empathetic as its hero.) Fruitvale Station is a tribute to a person cut down before he could fully find himself, and Jordan makes that tragedy sting: Oscar had so much potential, but he didn’t have enough time. What’s poignant about the movie is that it highlighted several great Black artists who got the chance that Grant never did.
Fruitvale Station opened in the U.S. on July 12, 2013. The next day, George Zimmerman would be acquitted for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Infuriated at the injustice, an Oakland activist named Alicia Garza wrote a Facebook post in which she included the phrase “Black lives matter.” It wasn’t the first time those three words had been uttered, but it galvanized a nascent movement that she co-founded and has only grown in strength this year.
“‘Black lives matter’ is so simple and yet so complex,” Garza said over the summer. “It really is a very direct assertion of both a problem and a solution at the same time. … [I]t’s forcing people across all walks of life, all sectors in our economy and every corner of the planet really, to assess whether we are where we need to be — and what we need to do to get to where we’re trying to go. That makes me feel hopeful, but I don’t have illusions at this stage that everything is going to change tomorrow.”
You can feel some of that early rage and disillusionment that prompted Black Lives Matter in Fruitvale Station, which feels just as raw today as when it came out in 2013. Like so many slain Black men and women, Oscar Grant III never got justice. Maybe, though, that’s about to change: Last month, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced that Grant’s case will be reopened. No doubt this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests helped reopen the case. But so did Fruitvale Station, fitting for a film about giving a voice to the voiceless.
“Violence is a reality for people like us, such a reality,” Coogler said in 2013. “It’s so unfortunate. I knew that [Grant’s] story would speak to that. I had a need to speak to things we deal with on a day-to-day basis. So few get our stories told by us.” In both its echoes to our present moment and the hope that Grant’s killer may finally receive punishment, Fruitvale Station’s story isn’t over yet.