This pertinent docu-drama, widely released about the same time George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, has one primary purpose.
It strives to give a face, a voice, and a human context to Oscar Grant, a young man cut down in his prime on New Year's Day 2009, inexplicably shot in the back by a cop at the titular Oakland train station.
Grant was a young black man with a criminal past. Hence, even confronted with the cellphone video of the senseless shooting (the very footage that starts this film), some might tend to blame the victim for the crime in the same way Trayvon was posthumously prosecuted by Zimmerman's defence team.
As a corrective, writer-director Ryan Coogler, making his debut feature, strives to make Grant a three-dimensional figure, with the able assistance of actor Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant as a young man valiantly trying to get through life, playing the hand he was dealt.
Coogler dramatizes the last day of Grant's life with a blend of fact and conjecture. We watch as he tries his best to be a good, present father to his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and a considerate mate to his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz).
Perhaps even more importantly, he strives to prove his worth to his mother (Octavia Spencer), the woman who has seen him at his lowest point (in San Quentin, goaded into a fight with another inmate during visiting hours, the film's one flashback).
But it is not easy. He has recently lost his job for being late, and his efforts to get another chance come off as threatening. To make some money, he considers -- and decides against -- selling a bag of pot to a friend.
It all comes to a head on that fateful night when Oscar, at his mother's insistence, takes the train to New Year's Eve celebrations in San Francisco, with fateful consequences.
In the scenes where Grant is alone, we can assume Coogler is taking narrative liberties, especially in one where he tries to comfort a stray dog that has been hit by a car. Such scenes diminish an otherwise honest film with a little gratuitous foreshadowing.
The post-shooting scenes, by contrast, contain all the urgency and tragedy of the most powerful documentary as the immediate consequences of the shooting slowly spread to Grant's family and friends.
Taken on the whole, this is a worthy film, forcing serious consideration of Grant as a man, not as a statistic.
When a police officer shoots someone, we tend to try to comfort ourselves that the victim somehow brought it on himself. If nothing else, this film makes the salient point: Oscar Grant did not have it coming.