The California kid whose first full-length feature film wowed the judges at Sundance and Cannes this year is now showing it off to the world. "Fruitvale Station," about Oscar Grant, the young black man shot and killed by a transit police officer in Oakland on New Year's Day 2009, opens nationwide a week from Friday.
You've said it could have been you on that BART platform, yet you and Oscar Grant are very different people.
Just look at him. We were the same age, from the same place — the East Bay. His friends looked like my friends. At that time, we all dressed the same. In the film, the characters who play the roles of his friends are like the people I grew up with, that's how interchangeable it is. I've been in situations where you get stopped by police — it's not something unfamiliar.
What were your thoughts when you heard about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case?
I am in no way shape or form an expert on the legal matters of the case. I was devastated by Trayvon's [killing], as well as the implications of the trial and the verdict [on] the value of Trayvon's humanity. As a community, African Americans should put the passion, the energy, the emotions we feel now into protecting and nurturing our youth and repairing the flaws in society that enable their lives to be seen as so expendable.
Doesn't every young black man get the lecture from his parents about how to conduct himself around police?
Oh yeah. I went to college with a lot of white kids, and I realized they'd never had those conversations with their parents. I can remember getting stopped [with them] by police in college. I'd be nervous and paranoid, and they'd be super relaxed and talking crazy to the cops. I was, "Man, what are you doing?" Different realities.
Why did you decide to make a film about what happened in Oakland?
Something impacts me emotionally, art is a kind of outlet, and I figure it's the same for a lot of artists. The way my mind deals with things is cinematic. What solidified it for me was in the weeks following — who he was as a person got pulled and manipulated, and nobody was talking about the tragedy that this dude, 23 years old, was gone, except for the people who knew [him] best. People on one side wanted to make him out to be this martyr who had never done anything wrong in his life, and other people wanted to make him out to be the most deplorable criminal of all time.
I tried to portray him in the way that the people closest to him knew him, both sides of him. I know people like Oscar — never all good or all bad.
Where did your interest in film come from?
I have real good parents, I have two brothers, and we got good educations. My parents didn't have a whole lot of money, but they spent the money they had on private school for us, Catholic school. My school was pretty much all African Americans, but it was still a little tough to be in because I didn't have a lot of money. And when I came back to my neighborhood, it was tough to fit in there too because I was wearing Catholic school clothes, and I had two parents, which was rare. I'd work hard in school, I'd do well in math and science, but I'd always read a lot, and watch TV with my parents a lot.
What did you watch?
My dad took me to "Malcolm X" and "Boyz n the Hood" when I was 5 or 6 — I was crying in the theater for Malcolm X. My dad likes sports movies, and we watched all the "Rocky" movies. My mom liked Scorsese movies, and I watched with her. And "The Twilight Zone" — I watched that with my parents all the time. I've seen every episode! When I got to film school, I bought them all on DVD.
I was really into football, and I liked chemistry. I figured if football didn't work, I could go to medical school. I got a football scholarship to St. Mary's College. They made us take this creative writing class taught by Rosemary Graham. She said: "I want you all to write about your most emotionally intense experience; I want to check out your writing." She also said something about football being a barbaric sport, and we got into a little argument.
I turned in the assignment and was hanging out in my dorm room, and I got a call from her: "I want you to come to my office." I thought I was in trouble for what I'd written, so I was a little nervous. Actually, I was really nervous. I went to her office, and she says, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" I thought, "Oh, now I'm in all kinds of trouble."
I said I wanted to be a doctor. She got my assignment and said: "This is really visual; that's rare to be able to do that. You should think about becoming a writer instead of a doctor." She said: "Maybe you could even go to Hollywood and write screenplays."
I thought she was crazy at the time. My whole thing was, I'm not in trouble! When I was back in my dorm room, I thought maybe there was something to what she was saying.
What did you do about it?
I liked movies, but I never even knew what a screenplay was. I went out to Best Buy and bought a DVD pack of "Pulp Fiction" that had the screenplay in it on a CD-ROM. I put it in my computer and saw a screenplay for the first time. I opened up Microsoft Word and tried to duplicate the physical structure of it, started doing my own script, and I really liked it.
From St. Mary's you went to Sacramento State and then the USC film program.
That was the only place I applied to!
Tell me something about your student films.
"Locks" was about a guy in Oakland who wakes up one morning and decides to cut all his dreadlocks off. "Fig" was about Figueroa; when I found out that it's Los Angeles' prostitution hub, I found it ironic that it's the same street where Staples Center is located, where USC is located. You go farther south and there's these women selling their bodies, on the same street.
Where were you when Oscar Grant was killed at the BART station?
I was back home [in the Bay Area], working as a bouncer at this rave. At juvenile hall, one of my co-workers has a security company, and he always hires me so I could make money on the holidays. One of my buddies said in passing that someone had got shot at one of the BART stations. Over the next few days the story came out.
Grant's killing was recorded on a cellphone. How do you tell such a story when people can find the real thing online?
You go to the Internet, the only thing you see from his life are those few minutes on that platform. What I was interested in was what people didn't see, from his life. You find out he did do time in prison, he did have a relationship with his daughter, he'd done many domestic things [the day he died]. It's an opportunity to provide something different.
Did you have nervous butterflies as the project picked up steam?
I am nervous right now! I was nervous when I pitched it, then when I met Forest [Whitaker, the producer]. I've had butterflies with razor-blade wings these past two years.
How did you persuade BART to let you film at the station?
They were apprehensive, but talking to them, they realized the film wasn't so much about the platform as about the guy, his relationships, so they were on board with it, even though it was difficult. And having Forest backing the project really helped.
You shot three half-days at the station, and began every day with a moment of silence. Was it hard to see that scene of his death over and over?
I've seen it too many times. It takes a little bit out of you every time. You never want to let yourself get callous to that kind of stuff.
Are you still working at juvenile hall?
I haven't in a while. I miss it, though. I look forward to going back as soon as I can. My dad's worked there ever since I was young. I used to go there with him. Any job where you're working with kids is good. It keeps you youthful, keeps you having perspective. It's not the easiest job in the world, seeing kids dealing with things that would break down most adults, kids who are throwing their lives away. But there's a lot of beauty in the kids.
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes