A Death Retold: Q&A with Filmmaker Ryan Coogler

Question & Answer, Lani Conway, New America Media

Editor’s Note: At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, 26-year-old filmmaker Ryan Coogler makes his feature debut with “Fruitvale,” a drama inspired by the real-life killing of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit police on New Year’s Day, 2009. With big-name participation by producer Forest Whitaker and actors Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan and Chad Michael Murray, the Richmond-based Coogler—named one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 new faces of 2012—is generating lots of buzz for his controversial subject matter and his own unlikely story.

What compelled you to tell Oscar Grant’s story?

When you see the [cell phone] video [of the shooting], you think, that could have happened to me, or my brothers or friends. Oscar looked like us. As I researched, I found that we had mutual friends—he went to the same school as my fiancé, and my cousin knew him really well. We’re both black, the same age, and from the East Bay. This story needed to be told by someone familiar with his situation.

Seeing the fallout from the video, there’s was a lot of frustration. As an artist, I’m fortunate enough to have an outlet for expressing that frustration.

Locks dealt with the African American male experience in the Bay Area. Shooting it gave me practice for shooting at home. Although I like movies of all varieties, I’ve always had an interest in social justice and human rights issues. Being from the Bay Area—an economically diverse place and a hotbed for political and social issues—I’ve always been attracted to African American stories. When I was young, I got frustrated that there wasn’t a lot of people who looked like me on TV, or people who were different from the norm.

I also made a short film called Fig which dealt with prostitution in Los Angeles, that took more of a feminine perspective. Both films gave me a lot of experience working with male and female actors. It also gave me an opportunity to talk about social justice issues like human trafficking, which I think needs to have more of a spotlight.

What were the challenges of writing and directing Fruitvale?

The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to make an impact with this story. There are a lot of the characters and people still walking around that knew Oscar, so it was challenging to represent the story, and do justice to it. But people were open to it, even BART. We filmed at the places where Oscar worked, lived and traveled, even the hospital where he died. Bay Area culture is very specific. We used a lot of professional actors, but also local characters, many of whom had never acted, to get the authenticity we were looking for.

Yet you changed the names of the real BART police officers involved in the case.

Absolutely. Anytime that you’re telling a real story about real people, someone might not want to be represented in that way. You have to act accordingly and follow those rules. I plan on living here. I don’t ever want to violate anybody’s wishes.

Did you do interviews with people? Oscar Grant’s family?

I introduced myself to Oscar’s family and friends, first to talk about our intentions with the film. Then I got to know them by doing a lot of interviews and character studies. The production was in the research. I spent a lot of time with Oscar’s fiancé, mom and daughter, Tatiana.

You developed Fruitvale at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab last January. What was that experience like?

It’s like getting a second family. You meet a lot of writers and directors who want to see you grow and get to the heart of each story you’re telling. Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam and Corrina, Corrina) were both advisors.

How did you get into filmmaking?

At first, I wanted to be a doctor. At St. Mary’s [near Oakland], a creative writing professor called me into her office to talk about an assignment I had written. The assignment was to write about an emotional experience. I had written about something that happened to me that was kind of crazy, so I thought I was in trouble. But instead, my professor asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told her I was studying chemistry, which wasn’t working out so well. She thought I’d be good at writing Hollywood screenplays. I thought she was nuts, but it stayed in my head for while. I downloaded a couple of screenplays, looked at them in my spare time and thought—hey, I could write these. Maybe she’s on to something.

I ended up getting a football scholarship to Sacramento State, switched my major to finance and started taking every film class I could. I really fell in love with it. After, I attended graduate school at University of Southern California. I’ve been doing [film] ever since.

You’re a counselor at the Youth Guidance Center in San Francisco. What does that involve?

I’m a cross between a childcare provider and a guard. I deal with kids, so the biggest thing is to be a positive influence in their life. Oftentimes, they don’t have anyone telling their story. Their situations are products of flaws in society.

How do see the connection between the topics you cover in film and being a guidance counselor?

When you’re a filmmaker, any job, especially if you’re dealing with people, is going to help. The biggest thing with my job is interacting kids that are products of their environment. You see them deal with situations that oftentimes adults couldn’t handle. It really helps to have a perspective on whatever story you want to tell, especially if you’re telling stories that I like to tell.

What impact do you want your portrayal of Oscar Grant’s story to have on audiences?

I want to give Oscar his humanity back. Anytime someone’s life is lost and there’s an inkling of politics involved—and it happens all the time—that person is not around to speak and defend himself. His character gets pulled in different directions depending on what side of the fence you sit on. We saw it happen a little with Trayvon Martin, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

A shorter version of this interview appears in the January 2013 issue of San Francisco magazine.

Newtown Exposes Double Standard Toward Youth Violence

Blog / Commentary by Asani Shakur

The Connecticut school shooting is such a tragedy, but I find it ironic because things like this have happened a lot in our community — maybe not 20 kids at a time, but one kid killed is one too many.

The killing of children shouldn’t happen on either side of the tracks, so it’s sad that when it does happen in areas like Oakland or Richmond, it’s like people expected it to happen: “Oh, an innocent little girl was hit. Oh, that’s sad but she just lives in bad neighborhood.”

Yet, when it happens in a different kind of neighborhood, like Newtown, it creates national attention. It’s unfortunate.

When it happens in our community, the person who did it is considered angry or ignorant. But when it’s someone from the other side, now the questions are: What was wrong with him? What was his mental state?

Well, hold on. Regardless of where you come from – whether you’re a cat from the hood or someone who comes from a privileged community — when you take a life, there is something mentally wrong with you.

As for the issue of gun violence: there have been numerous community-based and national leaders that have tried to speak out about the need for better gun laws, but it seems like their message is never really heard. While there definitely needs to be some sort of national gun control law that’s implemented, I think the issues go deeper that that. And I’m not even looking for the President to take care of these issues, because some of this we can take care of right here at home. Programs like the gun buy-back that happened recently in Oakland and San Francisco that resulted in hundreds of guns being moved off the streets, is an example.

I encourage everyone: let’s not let up. How many times has tragedy happened and everybody is in awe, then after a few months they go back to their normal life? No, it’s still a fight out there; we gotta keep pushing these issues. Life will go on after this, but it shouldn’t go on the same way.

Thoughts on Gun Violence, in the Wake of Newtown

Blog / Commentary by Yasmine Elsafy

The recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut that left 28 people dead — 20 of them children – has dominated the news cycle. Less known, however, is that while Newtown was the worst massacre of children in our nation’s history, it only one of sixteen mass shootings to have taken place in the U.S. in 2012 – shootings that together have claimed the lives of 88 people.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a child like this. And I don’t understand how, after the loss of so many innocent lives, the U.S. can continue to justify gun laws that have resulted in so much death and tragedy?

Many times I’ve heard that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This may be true, but it is illogical and unethical not to control guns in a society that glorifies violence and fosters the mental collapse of disturbed individuals on a seemingly regular basis.

Many shootings are carried out using automatic weapons; some of the children at Sandy Hook elementary in Connecticut were found to be shot as many as eleven times. Why should anyone have access to a weapon that can kill so many people in a single moment? Furthermore, how did a deranged and mentally unstable individual come to have access to such a weapon?

While it’s true that stricter gun laws would not wipe out the use of guns entirely, it is also true that more limitations would allow law enforcement to regulate who can have guns in their possession. President Obama has talked about enforcing stricter gun laws, but hasn’t exactly outlined what that means for people. Owning a pistol for self-defense is different from owning several automatic weapons. More limitations need to be placed on the purchase of firearms and on the kinds of firearms that are allowed to be sold on the market.

It’s interesting to see the different conversations being brought up around this incident. In the Bay Area alone, gun violence is an issue we live with on a regular basis. So many young people in our community have lost friends and family to gun violence, and children are sometimes victims of shootings as well. Many say that children die in our neighborhoods and in other parts of the world every day, and no one mourns them. 27 Palestinian children died in the most recent Israeli attack using weapons the US supplied to them, and news coverage and statistics were nowhere to be found in popular media. Anyone can agree that any innocent child lost to violence is a terrible tragedy, so why is it that similar events are treated so differently by the government and the media?

Whenever there is a tragedy people flock to social networking websites to express sadness and concern, but what has that really accomplished? What is the point of “feeling bad” if it does not give rise to some kind of action?

I still hear resistance to gun control policy, mostly because people are holding onto the idea that guns are a “right” and mostly necessary for self-defense. But the more guns are unchecked, the more violence is perpetuated. The more people that are armed, the more people believe that they need guns to protect themselves, and the more law enforcement is driven to use their own guns, resulting in more police violence against civilians.

Regardless of your views on gun control, the accumulation of these tragedies has clearly shown that current gun laws are not protecting our people. Do we really need these shootings to continue to take place before we acknowledge that? If gun laws are not corrected, what needs to happen before people realize that they must change?

What Big Soda Didn’t Buy

Op-Ed, Daniel Zingale

Big Soda spent big bucks. That’s how it defeated ballot measures to create soda taxes in two California towns.

In Richmond, in the Bay Area, and in El Monte, east of Los Angeles, the measures would have added a penny-an-ounce tax on soda. Had the taxes passed, they were projected to raise millions of dollars aimed at funding local recreation and nutrition activities to fight childhood obesity.

To bury these towns in an avalanche of billboards, mailers and ads, the American Beverage Assn. and friends wrote checks totaling $4.1 million. Supporters of the measures, primarily children’s health advocates, spent $114,000.

Big Soda spent $115 per vote in Richmond and El Monte. In comparison, supporters of Proposition 30, the governor’s tax measure, spent $5.85 per vote.

It was the most expensive campaign battle ever waged in El Monte. In Richmond, 99% of the funds used to defeat the soda tax poured in from out of state, 95% of them from Washington lobbying firms. Not a single cent for the “no” campaign came from an individual citizen.

Big Soda’s sky-high spending was a new low for California. Its political strategists have surely been slapping each other on the back, proud of the strong message they sent to other cities that might consider similar measures.

Richmond and El Monte residents probably would have appreciated it more if Big Soda had spent that pile of cash in a different way, for example, to keep California kids healthy and active. Here’s what that $4.1 million could have bought.

Daniel Zingale is a senior vice president at the California Endowment and a leader of its Health Happens Here campaign (www.healthhappenshere.org)


‘Whose City is This?’: Library Forum Sparks Intergenerational Dialogue on Violence

News Report, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

The expansive discussion on issues impacting Richmond youth that took place at last Saturday’s forum hosted by teens at the Richmond Public Library made it clear that young people here are not apathetic about their community. On the contrary, they regard the city as theirs.

During the two-hour forum, over 20 people, including parents, youth and community organizers, shared their concerns over the state of youth in Richmond today. Turf boundaries and violence involving multiple generations of Richmond families dominated the discussion, and concerns over education and access to resources for youth were also prominent.

Angela Cox of the Richmond Public Library prompted the discussion by asking audience members, “Whose city is this?”

Cox, a Richmond librarian for 27 years and coordinator of the library’s teen services, said she wants the library to be a space for youth to express themselves and “be a part of Richmond.”

Cox introduced the forum’s facilitator, Bill Say, a professional mediator who specializes in group and community healing. During his introduction, Say said he has longed to work with the Richmond community.

The opening discussion involved how to improve education in Richmond.

Sylvia Greenwood, principal of LaVonya DeJean Middle School, reported that her teachers, despite a tight budget, are closing the gap that exists between them and their students — learning how to communicate, at a time when technology is a major component of youth culture.

Ilse Rueda, a graduate of La Vonya De Jean Middle School and current San Francisco State University student, stressed the importance of multiculturalism in public school curriculum. A multicultural curriculum, she said, would give positive examples to students of color and encourage them to be successful – something district schools today aren’t doing enough of.

“The current curriculum,” said Rueda, “is not reflective of single parent households or low-income families.”

The conversation got lively when the topic turned to generational violence, with some saying the previous generation had laid a foundation for the violence erupting today on Richmond streets. At that point, Say called for an honest, but controlled, dialogue between community members. There were also comments leveled about the lack of responsibility older community members are taking in burying age-old disputes.

Sam Vaughn, a Neighborhood Change Agent with the Office of Neighborhood Safety, said the origins of violence are not exactly important, because “the youngsters are not fighting about what the elders fought about.”

Dante Clark, a local spoken word artist and instructor with the group RAW Talent, expressed that adults should be equally implicated in creating a “healing culture.” He stressed that Richmond needs a forum where youth, adults and elders involved in generational violence can agree to a ceasefire.

The evening’s discussion concluded by getting people out of their comfort zone, asking each participant to discuss youth issues with someone whom they might not normally talk to.

Clark closed out the night with a spoken word performance.

Given the amount of energy generated by the discussion, it’s expected that there will be additional forums on community violence in Richmond in the near future.

Activistas Indocumentados se Organizan con CCISCO

Reportaje, Malcolm Marshall

Era una noche de lunes en noviembre en la oficina de la Organización Interreligiosa Apoyando la Comunidad de Contra costa (CCISCO por sus siglas en inglés) en Richmond, y los miembros de Lideres Comunitarios Organizando a Dreamers Indocumentados (CLOUD por sus siglas en inglés), se unieron para ayudar a las personas interesadas en presentar una aplicación a La Acción Diferida para los Llegados en la Infancia (DACA por sus siglas en inglés).

El programa histórico DACA, anunciada por el presidente Obama el pasado verano, permite a los jóvenes indocumentados que, entre otros requisitos, llegaron a los EE.UU. antes de cumplir los 16 años y tenían menos de 31 años de edad el 15 de junio de 2012, solicitar un permiso de trabajo temporal.

Carlos Martínez de 23 años de edad, quien se describe como “indocumentados y sin miedo”, es uno de los fundadores de CLOUD. Esta noche, él está sentado en una mesa, listo y esperando que llegue la gente. CLOUD se formó a través CCISCO para educar a la comunidad inmigrante de la ciudad acerca de los detalles del nuevo programa federal, y para ayudarles en sus aplicaciones.

Carlos sólo ha vivido en Richmond cerca de un año – llegó al Área de la Bahía hace tres años para la universidad – pero dice que ya se ha enamorado de la comunidad.

“Yo vivía en San Francisco y Daly City pero no me sentía conectado con la comunidad”, dice Carlos. Pero, un amigo suyo vivía en Richmond, y le recomendó la ciudad a Carlos como un lugar que pudiera llamar hogar. Siguiendo el consejo de su amigo, Carlos pronto fue a echar un vistazo.

“En la calle 23, vi los camiones de tacos y las tiendas mexicanas y pense, quiero vivir aquí. (Esta es) mi gente”.

Terminó mudándose, y pronto comenzó a sentirse parte de la comunidad. Al principio, Carlos comenzó a notar el potencial de la ciudad.

Ya activo en el movimiento de derechos de los indocumentados en el Área de la Bahía, Carlos quedó impresionado por las muchas “personas muy humildes” que se encontró en Richmond. Una de esas personas fue José Juan, otro joven indocumentado.

“Los dos somos indocumentados (y) los dos encontramos a CLOUD”, dice Carlos.

Ambos, también, tenían experiencia en la organización al nivel local. Carlos ya tenía una mano en la creación de un centro de recursos en el City College de San Francisco para los estudiantes afectados por AB109 – la Medida de California del plan de reajuste de las prisiones- mientras que José Juan había estado activo en la comunidad de Richmond con grupos como Building Blocas for Kids, donde desarrollado una comprensión de las necesidades de la comunidad. Carlos lo llama una fórmula perfecta que llevó a los dos a co-fundar CLOUD.

“Los dos vamos a beneficiar de la acción diferida”, dice Carlos. “Sabíamos que Richmond necesitaba esto. Queremos que la gente sepa que estamos aquí para responder a cualquier pregunta que tenga la comunidad”.

El objetivo principal de CLOUD es proporcionar información sobre la Acción Diferida – cosas como quién es elegible y quién califica, y ayudar a los miembros de la comunidad solicitarla. También quieren organizar a la comunidad indocumentada en Richmond, más allá de la acción diferida.

“Vemos la visión más amplia. Vemos que mucha de la población que vive aquí en este condado es indocumentada. Por desgracia, no cumplen los requisitos (para la acción diferida) por lo que también queremos aprobar una reforma migratoria integral que incluya a todos, no sólo unos pocos”, dice Carlos.

CLOUD ha organizado dos eventos hasta el momento, y se ha ofrecido para un evento de Catholic Charities, dando información y viendo si las personas califican para DACA, servicios que prestan a la comunidad de forma gratuita.

Jackelin Valencia, 20 años, ha vivido en Richmond durante 14 años, y se graduó de Kennedy High School. Se involucró por primera vez con CLOUD en su primer evento y
rápidamente reconoció la importancia del trabajo que estaban haciendo.

“Cuando yo estaba en la high school, yo estaba organizando en mi escuela. Cuando llegué a CLOUD… quería involucrarme y ayudar a la comunidad indocumentada, porque sabía que no había otro grupo como este aquí en Richmond”.

“Definitivamente estamos empezando algo”, dice Jackelin. “La gente está emocionada, sólo ser parte de un grupo – dicen que se siente como una familia. Como Dreamers indocumentados, la mayoría de nosotros, valoramos la educación (y) valoramos la familia por la lucha (que todos hemos pasado)”.

La Acción Diferida permitirá jóvenes inmigrantes indocumentados que cumplan con los requisitos de edad, que no tengan un delito grave o delito menor significativo en su expediente, y que están matriculados en la escuela o tienen el equivalente de un diploma de la high school, solicitar permisos de trabajo, una licencia de conducir, y evitar la deportación por un período renovable de dos años.

Entendiendo que los beneficios de DACA son sólo temporales, CLOUD tiene previsto permanecer en contacto con los Dreamers a quienes ayudan a solicitar la acción diferida. “Tienes un permiso de trabajo durante dos años”, dice Jackelin. “¿Qué pasa después de eso? Necesitamos una reforma migratoria para todos. ¿Y nuestros padres? Lucharon tanto. ¿Qué podemos hacer por ellos?”

Estar conectado a la red de la comunidad de CCISCO de los diversos grupos interreligiosos en todo el Condado de Contra Costa ha permitido a CLOUD hacer un gran impacto.

“[CLOUD] fue formado por jóvenes líderes de nuestras diferentes congregaciones y escuelas secundarias, en colaboración con Carlos que fue nuestro pasante de verano DREAM (un puesto financiado por The California Endowment) y nuestra organizadora Claudia Jiménez”, explica el director de CCISCO Adam Kruggel.

CCISCO, una federación interreligiosa multi-racial, multi-generacional, de 25 congregaciones y organizaciones juveniles en el Condado de Contra Costa, se ha comprometido a aumentar el compromiso cívico y la participación pública de las personas más afectadas por la injusticia y la inequidad en el condado.

“Acoger al extranjero y el inmigrante es parte de nuestras tradiciones religiosas”, dice Kruggel. “Vemos la importancia crítica de respaldar a los jóvenes inmigrantes, para que puedan tener un asiento en la mesa de oportunidades en este país”.

Krugell cita las Escrituras: “La piedra que desecharon los edificadores se convertirá en la piedra angular”.

CLOUD y su trabajo de participación cívica con CCISCO ya ha tenido un impacto enorme en Richmond. El día de las elecciones, sus miembros tocaron mil puertas, dirigiéndose a los votantes menores de 30 años, personas de color y otros votantes con tasas de participación bajas – que contribuyo a que el Condado de Contra Costa tuviera el cuarto mayor número de votantes en el estado y la tercera más alta tasa de aprobación de la Proposición 30, la medida de impuestos del gobernador Jerry Brown.

“Eso es un cambio real en un condado que ha sido un condado más conservador, sobre todo en materia fiscal, así como en Richmond, donde la participación electoral es (tradicionalmente) baja”, señala Krugell. “CLOUD ayudó a dirigir el esfuerzo voluntario más grande de la participación cívica en este ciclo electoral. Ellos jugaron un papel crítico en la región en remodelar lo que significa ser una sociedad multicultural”.

Carlos dice que una de las razones por las que CLOUD ha disfrutado del éxito que ha tenido en Richmond, es el importante papel de la iglesia en la vida comunitaria.

“La mayoría de nuestra comunidad indocumentada es católica o cristiana. Así que si quieres difusión para un evento, puedes pedirle al sacerdote hacer un anuncio corto”.

Así es como CLOUD fue capaz de conseguir que más de 300 asistieran su primer evento en St. Marks Church – los anuncios en la iglesia hicieron toda la diferencia.

“(A través de CCISCO) también hemos construido una colaboración con Catholic Charities del Este de la Bahía, ubicada aquí en Richmond. Ellos proveen servicios legales para nuestros eventos. Es realmente importante. Podemos proporcionar información, pero algunas personas pueden tener un caso difícil y podemos referirlos a Catholic Charities”, dice Carlos.

Pero Carlos dice que la belleza de CCISCO es que no sólo se centran en la comunidad latina – también se centran en la comunidad afroamericana.

“Necesitamos aliados (y) CCISCO ha estado haciendo un gran trabajo. Sólo conectando estas dos comunidades que viven aquí … Es algo que es nuevo para mí y creo que (las dos comunidades) pueden hacer un trabajo increíble (en conjunto) – como las campañas para acabar con la encarcelación en masa y deportaciones en masa. Es algo muy poderoso”.