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‘Fruitvale Station’ stars hope to start conversation about untimely deaths

Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in "Fruitvale Station." (23564)
Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale Station.” Credit: The Weinstein Company

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a gunshot rang out that resonated around the country.

At 22, Bay Area resident Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a transit police officer at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland, California, after being detained with other passengers on the platform following reports of a fight. Grant was unarmed, and the incident sparked waves of protests in the months that followed.

The incident is chronicled in “Fruitvale Station,” an independent films, scheduled for release on July 12, that tells the story of the last day of Grant’s life.

For the film’s first-time director, Ryan Coogler, the motivation to tell “Fruitvale Station” was deeply personal.

“If Oscar were alive today, he’d be the same age as me right now, he’d be 27,” Coogler, who grew up in the Bay Area, told CNN at the movie’s New York premiere. “When it happened, it really affected me. That’s also something that I deal with on a day-to-day basis, losing friends to gun violence. I’ve seen lives cut short too soon.”

He adds, “What gets glossed over is that we’re human beings too, like everybody else, young African American males. Our humanity can often be found in our relationships with the people who are closest to us, and those relations aren’t often shown in headlines and whatever types of media you see us portrayed in. I hope the people can see a little bit of themselves in the character if they sit down and watch the film, and have a little bit of insight.”

The issue of young lives being cut off violently and unnecessarily early is what drew notable cast members Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer to the film.

Jordan can easily recall the 2009 Fruitvale station shooting, and he told CNN he feels a sense of responsibility to revive Grant’s legacy.

“The opportunity for me to play Oscar Grant, I mean I just had to jump at it. I felt a serious responsibility to play that role,” Jordan said. “Especially for the family, knowing one day his daughter’s going to watch this movie, and his mom, and the rest of his family and friends. I just want to do him justice.”

To Spencer, the story of Grant’s death is representative of an ongoing societal problem.

“Sadly, (this is) very topical … we’re losing way too many young men of color to this type of violence,” she told CNN, comparing the case to the more recent Trayvon Martin shooting in February 2012. “And then of course there’s urban violence; so we have to start somewhere with the conversation.”

To the Oscar-winner, the root of the problem lies in a lack of understanding between people of different races and backgrounds. The solution to curbing the violence, she believes, is in increased awareness and understanding.

“It actually starts with the individual. What is your response when you see someone different?” she said. “Your inner dialogue has to change, my inner dialogue has to change.”

Spencer reportedly donated and raised money for “Fruitvale Station” when the film hit a funding plateau. The movie debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film. It went on to win the award for Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival.

“I think when people see this film, they will see that all of these young men are … they’re human lives being lost,” Spencer said. “Once we can see people as human beings, I think maybe these incidents will be less likely to occur.”

Jane Caffrey | CNN