LOS ANGELES — Ryan Coogler is back on the University of Southern California campus for the first time since becoming one of the country's most promising young filmmakers, and he heads straight to the camera-rental center where he worked as a student. He runs into a former classmate, who high-fives and congratulates him, then asks for a photo. Coogler sheepishly obliges.
"This is inspiring, right here!" the younger man says as he snaps an iPhone shot of himself and Coogler. "Thank you, bro!"
Coogler gives the student his email address, then looks for his old boss, the equipment manager, who tells the 27-year-old filmmaker that he's set a new standard for success at USC's film school, which counts Ron Howard and George Lucas as alumni.
There's no doubt he has. Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" — his first dramatic feature and first project since graduating with a master's degree in 2011 — won both jury and audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival, where the Weinstein Co. outbid a dozen studios to distribute it. Originally called simply "Fruitvale," the film opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and around the nation later this month. Oscar buzz has already begun.
But nothing like that was on Coogler's mind when he decided to make the film. A native of Oakland, Calif., he was home for Christmas break during his first year at film school when 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot by transit police in the city's Fruitvale station on New Year's Eve, 2009. Scores of witnesses filmed the fatal shooting of the unarmed black man by white officer Johannes Mehserle on their cellphones, and riots and protests exploded in Oakland and around the country. (Mehserle was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years behind bars.)
Coogler was also 22 then, looked like Grant and came from the same neighborhood. It could have been him that night, he thought.
"I wanted to do something that could potentially have a proactive effect, that could maybe trigger a thought process or a discussion that could possibly prevent things like this from happening in the future," he said. "And I thought a film could be effective in proving this person's humanity."
Coogler has the athletic build of the football star he was, and a gregarious personality that leads him to greet several students he passes on campus. But there's something deeper: A profound desire to tell stories that aren't often heard, stories of people like him, like Oscar Grant. It's a passion that inspired him to abandon dreams of medical school to pursue filmmaking.
It's that drive, along with Coogler's talent, that caught the eye of USC professor Jed Dannenbaum, who contacted producer Nina Yang Bongiovi, telling her there's someone she had to meet.
"He's truly brilliant," Bongiovi remembers the professor saying.
She met with Coogler, and he gave her some short films he'd made at school. She watched them immediately and told collaborator Forest Whitaker, who'd been seeking a young artist to mentor, that they just had to work with him.
"I felt he was going to be one of those important filmmakers of his generation," she said.
She set up a meeting between the Oscar winner and the college student, who remembers wearing a shirt and tie to school that day.
"I was really nervous," Coogler said, recalling how he attended the meeting between classes and had to bring his backpack along.
He told Whitaker his ideas for "Fruitvale," ''and he said he wanted to help me make it," Coogler recalled, lighting up at the memory.
After signing on with Whitaker's Significant Productions, the filmmaker approached Grant's family in the same humble, open-hearted way he dealt with his classmates at USC.
"It was my first time making a film; I didn't want to hide that," he said. "I was young; I was the same age Oscar would have been had he still been alive, but I thought those things were in my favor in many ways."
Coogler wasn't looking to sensationalize anything. As a young, black Oakland resident who saw himself and his friends in Grant, Coogler sincerely wanted to reflect his neighborhood and the people he knew.
"I wasn't trying to do this to further my career," he said. "I just wanted to tell the story."
So with the family's blessing and Whitaker's support, he did, recounting the last day in the 22-year-old's life. The film shows his struggles with his girlfriend and his prison past; his illuminating love for his young daughter and desire to be a good dad; his devotion to his mom and grandmother; his penchant for drug dealing and angry outbursts; and how much he meant to those closest to him.
"Fruitvale" is not a documentary, but a dramatization based on court documents, cellphone footage and extensive interviews with Grant's family and friends.
"I feel like we put different values on different types of lives, just inherently, and I think people like Oscar, their lives have very little value. (We) see things like this happen all the time and don't bat an eyelash," Coogler said. "But these people are human beings, and their lives matter. And what better way to get to the bottom of who he was than through the lens of (his) relationships."
Michael B. Jordan, best known for his work on "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," embodies his first leading role as the charming and conflicted Grant. Grant's mother is played by Octavia Spencer, who also hopped on board as a producer, securing financing from investors including "The Help" author Kathryn Stockett.
That the Trayvon Martin case is playing out while this film hits theaters underscores the need for more stories like this, Coogler said.
"People who look like Oscar, who look like Trayvon, are dying every day on the streets of our country — not only being shot by a police officer or not only being shot by somebody using vigilante tactics, but oftentimes being shot by someone that looks just like them," he said. "These lives matter, and we shouldn't just stand by while this is happening."
Considering how much his life has changed since he left USC — he's made an award-winning film, attended the Cannes Film Festival and is invited to ever more Hollywood events — makes Coogler even more cognizant of his blessings and responsibilities as a storyteller.
He still lives in Oakland, maintains his day job at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco and hopes to continue "to make things that are true to myself."
"I'm constantly reminded where my life could be were it not for a few things, were it not for the parents that I had, or me being two inches here instead of two inches there sometimes," he said. "I don't think it's something I ever plan to forget."