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Writers on Writers: Chinaka Hodge and Ryan Coogler brown-bag it at Skywalker Ranch

Chinaka Hodge | May 29, 2013 | Story Profiles

It’s 4:37 p.m. on the Saturday before Easter, and Ryan Coogler and I are ’bout to miss each other. Coogler, affectionately called Coog by his friends, is legit busy. At Sundance 2013, his debut film, Fruitvale (which chronicles the last hours of Oscar Grant’s life before his untimely death at the hands of transit police in 2009), bagged both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize and was acquired by the Weinstein Company for a reported $2.5 million. Since then, Coog, age 26, has been preparing for the July national release of the film under the new name Fruitvale Station, planning his upcoming nuptials to his absolutely stunning fiancĂ©e, and somehow maintaining an admirable state of calm.

We’re supposed to be catching a ride on BART, traversing the cities—Oakland and Richmond—that raised us, using our favorite landmarks to guide our conversation. I imagine discussing Grand Lake Theater, Fairyland, Mosswood Park, the track at McClymonds High. But we need to reschedule. Easter’s tomorrow, and we’re black folk. I’m getting my “Sunday’s best” rehemmed. Ryan is in hot pursuit of a fresh Caesar cut, and his barber’s running behind. He’s got exactly one hour free in the coming weeks, and that’s out at Skywalker Ranch in Marin, where he’s completing the final sound mix for Fruitvale Station. So, it’s 1:01 p.m. on a Monday. We sit in the cinematic lap of luxury, with all of the trappings one would expect from Lucas et al. But instead of grandly parading around the sprawling campus, we post up in a quiet cafeteria, nearly unseen, with Coog munching the humble PB&J he brought from home.

We have 59 minutes, so I rapid-fire my most burning questions. Who are your favorite storytellers? No hesitation—Coog says: Stephen King and Tupac. I press further: What’s your favorite Pac album? Coog furrows his brown-skinned brow as if I have asked him to pick a favorite child or most preferred appendage. He finally chooses: Me Against the World. That question is like a hood litmus test, and Ryan shows his true nature, picking the work that best epitomizes Shakur’s time in Oakland. True. True.

I ask about his parents, whom Coog calls the most influential people in his life; who worked tirelessly to educate him and his younger brother; who married when few others in their community put a premium on that commitment; who invested many of their hard-earned dollars in Ryan’s promising career as an athlete, only to have their son turn from college football at the end of his days at Sac State and take a leap toward film. How’d they take it? Like the heroes he professes they are.

Coog answers each of my questions with humor, rigor, and patience. In the lead-up to Fruitvale Station’s mass release, he has consistently shied away from the spotlight. He wants the focus where it oughta be: on the work. He’s got gridiron stamina, attacking his career in cinema with the zeal of someone used to knocking out two-a-days. Coog is intent on telling transcendent, universal narratives, stories that situate the Bay Area squarely in its rightful place, as much at the center of American cinema as Martin Scorsese’s New York, or Woody Allen’s New York, or Spike Lee’s New York—you catch my drift. He believes that stories set at home and told by those intimately familiar with the norms and characters therein have the power to become more than film, to be “documents of our history” that stay with audiences—much like Spike Lee’s X or John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.

With one minute left and since Easter derailed our original plan, I think it only proper to conclude by asking Ryan which Bible verses most resonate with him. He doesn’t quote chapter and verse, but talks instead about the parables, saying that the ones containing advice about humility are the lessons he holds closest. It’s a statement almost too redundant in its beauty, mirroring exactly where we are. Ryan’s hidden in a corporate cafeteria at the foot of a tiny table, eating a homemade sandwich, all as Hollywood beckons. The moment is perfect. So glad we ain’t miss it.

Chinaka Hodge is a poet, screenwriter, and educator who lives on airplanes and sometimes sees her homes in Los Angeles and West Oakland.

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