BERKELEY -- Ryan Coogler didn't create the award-winning film "Fruitvale Station" to entertain. He wanted to start a conversation around the killing of Oscar Grant III by a BART police officer on Jan. 1, 2009.
That conversation -- about film, life, justice and love -- flowed at Berkeley High School on Dec. 4 during a question-and-answer session at a screening of the film for several hundred students and their teachers in the Florence Schwimley Little Theater.
Sporting jeans and a hoodie, Coogler, 27, quickly established a rapport with the enthusiastic students. Oscar Grant's uncle, Cephas Johnson, joined Coogler on stage to answer questions.
One student, who identified herself as Renee, wanted to know about the family's reaction, when Coogler initially proposed the film.
"That's a really important question," Coogler said, explaining that, when he first sat down with the family, he had just completed a degree at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He told the family he wanted to make a film showing who Oscar really was.
"For some reason they trusted me to do that," Coogler said. "If the shoe was on the other foot, I don't know what my reaction would be." Because of the family's openness, "I had an obligation to do right by what they told me," he said.
"Fruitvale Station," Coogler's first full-length film, portrays Oscar Grant's humanity and complexity by showing the last 24 hours of his life as a caring father, a cheating boyfriend, a loving son, and an ex-convict struggling to follow a better path.
Cephas Johnson spoke for the family, saying that Coogler wasn't the first to approach them about a film. The family hesitated -- Oscar Grant had already been "crucified and murdered" in the press, Johnson said.
"Now we have an individual sitting in front of us who wanted to tell Oscar's story," Johnson said. "Our concern was, would he tell it right?"
Coogler and the family bonded. "I think a lot had to do with the honesty, and that he was just like Oscar," Johnson said. "He was the same age as Oscar, a young black man, and surely shared some of the same experiences as Oscar -- so who better to tell the story of who Oscar was than him?
"It was important to us for the world to know who he was as a person to us. The resurrection of Oscar thought the film was so critically important."
One student asked Coogler -- who was born in Oakland, raised in Oakland and Richmond, and went to school at St. Mary's High School in Berkeley -- to speak about his connection to Oscar Grant.
Coogler recalled being home on Christmas break from film school and getting a call from a friend riding BART in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009. The friend told him there had been a shooting at the Fruitvale station.
Over the next days, details would emerge. Bystanders' videos -- one which Coogler would use to open the film -- showed Grant's last moments. "I remember seeing a picture and saying, 'Damn, that could be my cousin, that could be my brother, that could be me,'" Coogler said.
"I was thinking, what if that happened to myself or somebody I know, somebody I love. For some reason, as human beings, we identify with people that are most like us."
That identification was Coogler's motivation for making the film.
Coogler closed the formal part of the session -- he stayed after school was dismissed to dialogue with the young people crowded around him -- by telling the students they inspired him. "You guys are going to change the world," he said. "No doubt about that."
The San Francisco Film Society (filmed.sffs.org), which helped fund and publicize the film, prepared an online teacher's guide for "Fruitvale Station" at http://bit.ly/1d5NvHI.