"I wanted to tell the story of Oscar Grant for a lot of reasons," said director Ryan Coogler of his new film "Fruitvale," which chronicles the last few hours in the life of the 22-year old Grant before he was fatally shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle after an altercation. "The main reason was I was here when it happened."
Coogler, explained his process in writing and directing his first feature in an interview with the San Francisco Film Society's Filmmaker360 project.
"I got the call that night...from one of my friends that someone had just been shot at the BART station," remembered Coogler. "Seeing what happened to him on the internet was just horrifying because he looked like us. It could have been any one of us there."
Grant's death instantly became controversial after a cell phone video of the shooting surfaced. The video shows Mehserle shooting Grant while he is subdued on the floor of the BART station with his hands behind his back. Mehserle claimed he had intended to draw his Taser, and the firing of his gun was accidental.
In 2010, a jury cleared Mehserle or all charges save for involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to two years in prison, minus time served. He was released on parole last year.
Many in Oakland's African American community believed the punishment was insufficient, and the initially peaceful protests that followed the verdict devolved into a riot during which 80 people were arrested.
The film is a dramatic exploration of an event that set off a firestorm of controversy across the country. It stars Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Chad Michael Murray. Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker is serving as the film's producer.
"A lot of filmmakers are stepping up to the plate and realizing we have a social responsibility not just to entertain but to make people think," said Coogler, who also works with incarcerated youth at San Francisco's juvenile hall. "At the end of the day, a filmmaker's most important tool is humanity. You want to be able to capture humanity in your stories, you want to be able to bring out humanity in your characters."
Fruitvale will have its world premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Check out this slideshow of pictures from the Oakland riots sparked by the Mehserle verdict.