At a film festival celebrating the latest film technology, Ryan Coogler embraces the low-fi tech of a 2008 flip phone as the key character in his drama Fruitvale, the story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old Oakland-area resident who was needlessly shot and killed by BART Transit Police during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. The film walked away with the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award of U.S. Dramatic film—a dual honor last won by Precious in 2009—and was acquired by The Weinstein Company.
Octavia Spencer attracts a lot of attention as Oscar’s tough-love mom but Fruitvale is one of those Sundance movies where the debut director is the story—one who embraces the brand of Sundance risk-taking by making a raw, powerful debut feature (and making a cell phone a key character).
A no-cost cell phone may appear to be a surprising cast addition, but, Coogler tells us, the cell phone is key to the Fruitvale’s urban authenticity and its ability to pull audiences into the story.
"That was a decision I made early on," Coogler says, looking Sundance casual in his striped wool sweater, sinking deep into a backroom couch at the Main Street bar Rock n Reilly’s. "Cell phones have such an impact on Oscar’s life and his story. The last thing Oscar did with his cell phone was take a picture of the officer who shot him holding his Taser. Everybody on the train was recording with their cell phones.
"Had this happened before 2008 cell phone and video camera technology, I wouldn’t be making this movie because nobody would have known what happened. The cell phone is big big, big motif in this film and I wanted to make the cell phone a character."
Coogler is also convinced that Oscar’s inexpensive cell phone and his constant use of it allow audiences to better understand the film’s themes about the impact of one’s environment and the challenges Oscar faced growing up in tough East Bay conditions.
Going back to the first drafts of the Fruitvale script, eliciting early feedback at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, Coogler describes his attention to detail choosing the film’s color, Oscar’s text message pop-up screens that appear throughout the film, and the number of people who pass around Oscar’s phone.
"We even debated over using predictive text versus a QWERTY style," Coogler adds, speaking at a mile-per-minute pace. "I thought it would be cool to make Oscar’s phone the way it really looked. It was Old School and captures his place and time but his scroll of texts also show that his world is bigger than just the people he was calling."