RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Oakland, California plays host to a movie opening today. And while there's a lot of anticipation, it's not really a moment for celebration. It's about the life and disturbing death of a young African-American named Oscar Grant, shot in the back by a white police officer. That killing four years ago touched off violent street protests. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the film portrays Grant as a troubled, but also as a charming and complex young man.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: I'm standing on the platform at the Fruitvale Station, a stop along the Bay Area Rapid Transit line in Oakland. This spot is well-known as a place where 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed by a BART police officer on New Year's Day in 2009. One reason it's well known is because that killing was captured on cell phone and video camera footage. And so there's a lot of buzz here about the movie called "Fruitvale Station."
MONIQUE MCNEIL: I would like to see the movie.
GONZALES: Monique McNeil was on her way to catch a BART train.
MCNEIL: And I believe that the movie is just to bring out justice, so that people will see the side of the story of that young man that's not here anymore, and see that that was a wrongful death.
GONZALES: Musician and chef Kenneth Lee was just getting off a train. He says he plans to see the movie as soon as he can.
KENNETH LEE: You know it's a sad situation, man, you know what I mean? I can't believe that happened. That was real, live murder. You know what I mean? We all seen it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
GONZALES: It seems like everyone here in Oakland has seen the grainy, herky-jerky video of Grant's last moments. Two officers pin Grant down, face first to the platform. Then one of them shoots Grant in the back at point-blank range.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
GONZALES: The shooting officer, Johannes Mehserle, claimed to have been reaching for his taser, not his handgun. But Mehserle's name is never mentioned in the film. That's because director Ryan Coogler insists that his film really isn't about Grant's death.
RYAN COOGLER: I was very interested in telling a story about relationships and about humanity.
GONZALES: Coogler is an intense, soft-spoken man, and "Fruitvale Station" is his first feature film. He says some people considered Grant a martyr and hero, a victim of police brutality. Others called him a thug who brought his own death upon himself by resisting the police. Coogler says both sides dehumanized Oscar Grant.
COOGLER: What I was interested in was just telling the story of his relationships, like who this guy was to the people that knew him the best and the people that loved him the most, you know, and the people he meant the world to. You know, and everybody - every human being has those people.
GONZALES: In the film, you see Grant's last day alive. He's an unemployed father and dealing drugs, but he's desperately trying to straighten up, because he's also an ex-con. Grant is played by actor Michael B. Jordan. In this flashback scene, he alienates his mother, who has come to visit him in San Quentin prison. She's played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRUITVALE STATION")
OCTAVIA SPENCER: (as Wanda) I'm not coming here for these visits anymore. This is my last time.
MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (as Oscar) I know. I know. I know. I know this is the last time for me, too. I told you that. I ain't going down no more.
SPENCER: (as Wanda) You gonna keep putting Sophina through this? Then you go right ahead. OK? I'll see you when you get home.
JORDAN: (as Oscar) Hey, Ma. Hold up. Give me a hug, Ma.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Grant!
JORDAN: (as Oscar) Hey, ma, I can't get a hug?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Grant. Back to the visiting area, Grant.
JORDAN: (as Oscar) Hey, Ma, I'm sorry. Ma, I'm sorry. Can I please get a hug, Ma? Ma, at least give me a hug, Ma. Hey, Ma, I'm sorry.
GONZALES: The unvarnished view of Grant may surprise some, but not his family.
CEPHUS JOHNSON: So we've seen the movie now four times.
GONZALES: I'm talking with Oscar Grant's uncle, Cephus Johnson, at a coffee shop near Fruitvale Station.
JOHNSON: It doesn't get easier. And then to re-live that scene on that platform is very painful.
GONZALES: Johnson says they had been approached by several filmmakers who wanted to tell Oscar Grant's story. But they were won over by Ryan Coogler, who promised to deliver a complicated portrait of the young man. Cephus Johnson.
JOHNSON: It's not just Oscar you see in that movie. It's all our young black and brown men that you see in that movie.
GONZALES: In many ways, Oakland is still taking stock of what happened here at Fruitvale Station in 2009. And some wonder whether the film might reignite passions.
EVER BOLDEN: You know, if there was going to be more polarization, more hate for cops, or more hate for the unemployed or the young people, then it hasn't done its job, you know?
GONZALES: Ever Bolden, a school teacher, says he's not sure he wants to see the movie.
BOLDEN: We've got to bring people back together, and I feel like movies are there to inspire and strengthen us, and if this movie does that, I will be very grateful.
GONZALES: "Fruitvale Station" opens today in New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Its full national release comes on July 26th. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.