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"I wasn't trying to do this to further my career," he said. "I just wanted to tell the story."
So with the family's blessing and Whitaker's support, he did, recounting the last day in the 22-year-old's life. The film shows his struggles with his girlfriend and his prison past; his illuminating love for his young daughter and desire to be a good dad; his devotion to his mom and grandmother; his penchant for drug dealing and angry outbursts; and how much he meant to those closest to him.
"Fruitvale" is not a documentary, but a dramatization based on court documents, cellphone footage and extensive interviews with Grant's family and friends.
"I feel like we put different values on different types of lives, just inherently, and I think people like Oscar, their lives have very little value. (We) see things like this happen all the time and don't bat an eyelash," Coogler said. "But these people are human beings, and their lives matter. And what better way to get to the bottom of who he was than through the lens of (his) relationships."
Michael B. Jordan, best known for his work on "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," embodies his first leading role as the charming and conflicted Grant. Grant's mother is played by Octavia Spencer, who also hopped on board as a producer, securing financing from investors including "The Help" author Kathryn Stockett.
That the Trayvon Martin case is playing out while this film hits theaters underscores the need for more stories like this, Coogler said.
"People who look like Oscar, who look like Trayvon, are dying every day on the streets of our country — not only being shot by a police officer or not only being shot by somebody using vigilante tactics, but oftentimes being shot by someone that looks just like them," he said. "These lives matter, and we shouldn't just stand by while this is happening."
Considering how much his life has changed since he left USC — he's made an award-winning film, attended the Cannes Film Festival and is invited to ever more Hollywood events — makes Coogler even more cognizant of his blessings and responsibilities as a storyteller.
He still lives in Oakland, maintains his day job at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco and hopes to continue "to make things that are true to myself."
"I'm constantly reminded where my life could be were it not for a few things, were it not for the parents that I had, or me being two inches here instead of two inches there sometimes," he said. "I don't think it's something I ever plan to forget."