FRUITVALE STATION—–even though they’ve been around since 1863, modes of public rapid transit—-subways and the like–have always had a bit of a futuristic aura to them, clattering or whisking away their democratically cocooned collective human cargo in a time-compressing journey to personal individual destinations; work or fun, tryst or fate. In this poignant 2013 true-story drama, the metro trains of the San Francisco Bay Area—B.A.R.T.—are skillfully used by perceptive writer-director Ryan Coogler as a character, a mute, efficient, impersonal conveyor of fragile dreams into numbing despair. *
22 and a jobless father, ex-con Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) hopes to get away from his aimless drug-dealing and turn things around. In his corner, though wary and worn down by his capering, love bonds keep his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and his mother (Octavia Spencer) hoping Oscar will let his better nature win out. Coming back from celebrating New Years Eve with friends, at 2am on January 1, 2009, Grant’s past collided with a chance present and changed the future for those who loved him and the strangers who met him that night. **
Coogler’s impressive first feature drew critical acclaim and a gratifying return on its modest $900,000 tag by earning $17,400,000 to go with numerous awards and accolades: his directorial career off and running. With a quick flashback, the trim 85-minutes sticks to that last day and night, leaving the firestorm of public outrage that followed the event to a coda, keeping the focus on the directly affected rather than delivering a polemic. Apart from some excusable contrivances (not overdone) it makes for a telling look at the subtlety of choice, the implacability of fate and the miniature tragedies that are seeded by a world that squanders human resources into grist for statistics.
Naturalistic dialogue, tight performances, excellent use of sound design. The “big” scenes are adroitly handled, measured so they don’t steam over into actor-excess. Spencer co-produced with Forest Whitaker, who mentored 27-year-old Coogler. With Ahma O’Reilly, Kevin Durand and Ariana Neal.
* I remember seeing, as a child, the supercool Monorails at Disneyland and at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair: right out of The Jetsons. No doubt people felt similarly gadzooks about the Tube in London, and the eventual labyrinth in New York. Though Grant was African-American and the movie is set within a modern Black urban milieu, and while the BART officers responsible for Grant’s homicide were White, the issue of race felt tangential to a greater generalized sense of waste—wasted talents, wasted human potential, the vast mis-allocation of resources that is speeding the whole blue orb of ours to a shared karma. A giant industrialized country made for a network of sleek mass transport has but slivers, while a few prodigiously expensive extractive leviathans keep us servants to private vehicles, furthering isolation from any communal sense. Millions of people like Grant could find work and pride re-building an outdated infrastructure and the revenue might better train those who serve security, so dopes like the uniformed thugs who killed this errant kid would be screened out, lessening the incidence of ‘traditional’ ingrained suspicions meeting at flashpoint. Maybe on another planet.
** Spike Lee would have tonelessly stomped this into the pavement and made its racial component the whole story (gotta love lectures from millionaires). Left out of the script were Grant’s history of arrests and his fathers conviction for first-degree murder. Also unmentioned were the later unemployment fraud transgressions of one of the officers involved. Irony being color-blind, it is a further twist to note that when London’s Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863, their American cousins were busy with a Civil War, spilling oceans of blood over social and economic differences arising from institutionalized racism and pitting poor people against one another. Gosh, glad we got that out of our system…