Back in January 2008, HBO held a premiere party for the fifth and final season of its critically acclaimed series The Wire. The show, created by David Simon, was set in Baltimore and examined every facet of the city’s war on drugs, from inner city dealers and the cops on their tail to politicians and members of the press. At one point during the fête, Simon took over the microphone. He proceeded to rattle off the names of dozens of notable cast members, urging them to stand for an ovation.

“The loudest cheers came for Michael B. Jordan,” reported New York magazine.

In The Wire’s first season, Jordan played Wallace, a sympathetic teen drug dealer for the Barksdale Organization who wants out of “the game.” The 16-year-old’s demise is arguably the most devastating moment in the series. More than a decade after that fateful scene aired, Jordan is back as another tragic hero.

In Fruitvale Station, he plays Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who, in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, was fatally shot in the back while being restrained by white BART police officers at a transit station in Oakland, Calif. The incident was caught on video by cellphone-wielding passers-by and immediately went viral, inciting protests and riots.

Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler, recreates the last day of Grant’s life, including the time he spent with his mother, Wanda (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and infant daughter. And Jordan, who appears in virtually every scene of the film, delivers a riveting, devastating performance. The Hollywood Reporter likened him to “a young Denzel Washington.”

“The first time I ever lost myself in a role was on The Wire, when Wallace was sniffing coke for the first time, and I’ve tried to find that again,” Jordan told The Daily Beast. “That’s a high that I can’t describe. In Fruitvale Station, I had that feeling a lot. About 90 percent of the time, I was somewhere else.” The first time Jordan saw the video of Grant’s shooting, he says, was back in 2009. He was at home, sitting in front of his computer, and a friend posted it on his Facebook wall.

“I watched it 10, 12 times—way more than I should,” he says. “But I was just sitting there and couldn’t believe it. I was trying to find a reason in it or justification in it. What did he do that he deserved to die? I didn’t find one. I was pissed off, emotionally disturbed, frustrated, sad, and hopeless. There was nothing you could do to make a difference.”