In the wake of a huge buzzwave at Sundance and a $2.5 million distribution deal with the Weinstein Co., Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale has already sparked debate about the what it means to put the controversial events on the big screen.
Although there's not even a trailer available online yet, we do have a handful of reviews to shed some more light on Coogler's portrait of Oscar Grant. While the Hollywood Reporter called it a powerful telling of "an awful tale, fraught with political, social and moral weight symbolic of numerous contemporary ills." Variety believes it is "well-intentioned" but ultimately flawed in it's "relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject." In yet another review from the Huffington Post, Mike Ryan laid it out simply: "there are some scenes that are a bit manipulative ... But, who cares? If it is manipulative, it works."
While we wait to reserve judgement until we can see the film ourselves, the LA Times offers some more insight into Coogler and Executive Produce Forest Whitaker's filmmaking process with this gushing interview conducted by film critic and USC professor Kenneth Turan. (Worth noting the unspoken disclosure here that Coogler went to USC's MFA program, where Turan is a lecturer.) Coogler speaks about his immediate reaction following the incident on New Year's Day:
Kenneth Turan: You were up in the Bay Area when that happened, talk about how that immediately hit you.
Ryan Coogler: Ah, man, um. So I was there in Oakland... I actually got a call from one of my buddies that said, "the police just shot somebody at the BART station. It's looking like he's not going to make it." You know what I mean? And he died later on that next morning. Pretty much as soon as he passed away, the video was available online. It was available on YouTube and news reports. I watched it... The footage was on cellphone cameras from 2008, so it was kinda grainy, so all you could make out is that he was a young black dude, wearing the same kinda clothes that we all wore. So, it was kinda like watching something happen to yourself. Or to your friends. Or to your brother that you know. And it was something horrific, and it angered me, terrified me.
On becoming Executive Producer for the film, Whitaker says he watched Fig, Coogler's 2011 short film about a mother forced into prostitution in order to feed her young daughter. When Coogler described the Oscar Grant story he had been working on, Whitaker "decided right there, let's just make this film." "I write a lot," Coogler says, "but Fruitvale was the one that was absolutely closest to my heart. In many ways, I feel like it was the film I was born to make."
On the film's Oakland locations, which the Hollywood Reporter called "nondescript" but "well-used," Coogler elaborates:
Turan: And I know it was very important to you to make it on or as close to the real locations as you could. Talk about that a little bit.
Coogler: [...] The film was a motif. How environments have effects on characters like Oscar. It kind of came through while writing the script that institutional environments... you know, in the film, the BART station is an institutional environment, the hospital he goes to is an institutional environment, the store where he works at is an institutional environment. These institutional environments, although they're there under the guise of helping people — you know, people call prison "a rehabilitation center" — these places are there. BART is a place where supposed to feel safe, and take public transit and go to and fro. For characters like Oscar, for people like Oscar, these institutional environments don't help us, you know? Often times they harm us, you know? So that became a motif in the film. Seeing him when he's in his domestic environments, seeing him when he's in these environments and it makes sense to me, being from the Bay Area, because I can't make a film and look at it and know that it's not real. I have to direct from a place of truth. I gotta tell actors what to do, I gotta tell people what to do with their lives for a certain amount of days and if I'm not believing it, they'll sense that. And for me, we had to get into those real places. [...]
Whitaker: It informed all the actors, everyone, being in that real space. It was a process to get there, but it was worth it.
On the topic of the final product that debuted in Utah last weekend, Whitaker says the movie is "really powerful and important" and Coogler himself is "an important filmmaker" with the first of many amazing films under his belt.
The full video interview is available on LA Times.