Ryan Coogler
Photo: Rhee Bevere/The Weinstein Company
One thing 27-year-old Ryan Coogler did not anticipate when he premiered his first feature-length movie at this year's Sundance Film Festival? A standing ovation from a roomful of emotional fans. Another? Winning the coveted Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for a U.S. dramatic film. But Fruitvale Station, a raw, chilling look at the killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old from Coogler's Oakland, California, neighborhood, has been shaking audiences around the world, including at Cannes.

Coogler was home for New Year's in 2009 when a transit cop wrongfully shot Grant at a nearby train station—in front of dozens of horrified onlookers. As details came to light, his death made national news and sparked protests and riots throughout the Bay Area. "I was the same age as Oscar," says Coogler, then a film student at USC. "I felt like I had to tell his story so something similar wouldn't happen again."

Starring Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer, the powerful drama, in theaters now, documents the final 24 hours of Grant's life, an ordinary day with an extraordinarily tragic end. To write the script, Coogler carefully sifted through depositions and public records of eyewitness accounts and spent time with Grant's family and friends. "The movie's compressed timeline brings you close to Oscar," he says. "I wanted the audience to just spend the day with him."

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