OAKLAND -- In the moments after Oscar Grant III was shot dead at the Fruitvale BART station, his mother, Wanda Johnson, was filled with disbelief.
She couldn't understand how or why her son ended up dead at the hands of a police officer after taking BART to San Francisco to celebrate New Year's Eve.
Johnson's questions soon turned to anger as details of her son's death emerged and the police officer that shot him, Johannes Mehserle, was eventually punished by only a year in county jail.
The anger festered for months as Grant's family felt they were cheated by a criminal justice system that, they believe, favors police officers and frustrated that many tried to justify the killing by pointing at Grant's troubled life that included almost a half-dozen arrests for drug and gun offenses.
But filmmaker Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" helped change the family's feelings and provided another step in the grieving process as Johnson and others in the religious family slowly began to realize how Grant's death can be used for positive change.
"When it first happened we asked the Lord 'Why did this happen?'" said Johnson, a practicing minister. "But God sees the picture in its entirety."
By focusing more on Grant's life than on an analysis of what happened at BART's Fruitvale station on New Year's Day 2009, Coogler has helped Grant's family and friends find meaning in his death.
"It may sound crazy, but I had been praying for Oscar's ministry to grow and now it has grown," Johnson said. "He may not be here but he has really touched people all over the world through what has happened to him."
Johnson admits she was not thrilled when she first met Coogler and heard his idea about the movie. Cephus "Uncle Bobby" Johnson, Grant's uncle and the family spokesman, also admitted being initially upset about the film's focus.
Wanda Johnson said she was concerned that Coogler was focusing on Grant's behavior as a teen and young adult, a time when Grant was arrested five times, including once when a police officer used a Taser on him after he ran from the officer while carrying a gun.¿
Cephus Johnson said he was originally upset that the movie was not focusing on Mehserle's actions and the "injustice" he and the rest of the family felt in the Los Angeles courtroom where Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
"When I first looked at it, of course my hope was that everyone in the world has to see what (Mehserle) did, that it was wrong," Cephus Johnson said. "But after we met with Ryan and he shared with us what he wanted the world to see, that helped us see the direction.
"I thought about it and realized that we never really got the ability to tell the story of Oscar."
That story began at Highland Hospital, Oakland, in 1986 when Grant was born. At the time, Grant's father, Oscar Grant Jr., was in prison serving a life sentence for murder.
Wanda Johnson said that her son asked for his father as he grew older but said she did not believe his absence contributed too much toward Grant's transgressions. Wanda Johnson said Grant was routinely surrounded by strong, positive role models in his life including his uncle, Cephus, an army veteran, and grandfather.
Grant spent much of his elementary and middle school years enrolled in private Christian schools and only transferred out in high school when Grant pleaded with his mother to attend a public high school.¿
It was then, Wanda Johnson said, that Grant began to get into trouble. It was also then, at 17 years old, that Grant became a father.
"He ended up missing school and I told him I wasn't going to make him go to school, but I told him that he needed an education," Wanda Johnson said. "Oscar had to go through these things so he could become stronger."
The family was concerned about Grant's path at the time but also saw that he was learning lessons.
"I can remember when I heard the news that he had gotten into a little trouble, he himself said, 'Man, I don't want to do that again, I don't want that experience,'" Cephus Johnson said. "I think he realized he made a few bad choices."
Cephus Johnson said the family was a little dismayed that Grant was following a path toward criminal activity. "Oscar was raised correctly, he had real structure in his life," Cephus Johnson said. "We always laid a foundation."
Just as the movie illustrates, in many ways Grant's attempts to live a clean life and his success toward that made his death even more painful, his family members said.
Yet, Wanda Johnson said, she now realizes with the movie, that Grant's death can help society, especially those struggling to live clean.
"I want people to recognize that you may have made mistakes in life, but you can still grow up and out of that situation," Wanda Johnson said. "We miss Oscar dearly and of course we wish this would not have happened, but what is being developed is pleasing because it has stimulated conversations about issues that need to be looked at."
What: Critically-acclaimed movie about the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant III's life before he was fatally shot by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale station
When: Friday, select theaters; opens nationwide July 19
Where: Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, AMC Metreon in San Francisco and The California Theatre in Berkeley