In the past, when a movie touted itself as “based on a true story,” I generally dismissed the claim as an empty qualifier, a marketing ploy. Rooting a film’s narrative in actual events rarely altered the thematic content or perspective in any significant way. Braveheart and Lord of the Rings are both simple tales of good versus evil, but while one is "based on a true story" the other features a weird hobbit and is set in Middle Earth. An undeniable dishonesty often attends cinematic claims of honesty: the attempt to recreate authenticity actually connects filmmakers and forgers as kin.
However, two recent releases – Blue Caprice and Fruitvale Station – have forced me to reconsider my prejudice against dramatizations of real events. These two films prove that by approaching catastrophic true events without personal agendas, directors can give much more than a “true” account of the incidents question: they can provide meaning to the senseless tragedies that now seem too common.
In case you’ve missed the well-deserved hype surrounding these films, allow me to fill you in. Blue Caprice traces the origins of the Beltway snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
Yet before you balk at two mass-murderers getting their own feature film, know that Blue Caprice has no pretensions of redeeming either man, but instead wishes to explore the profound alienation of the younger man, Malvo (Tequan Richmond), and his manipulation by his disturbing and calculating father-figure, Muhammad (Isaiah Washington). The point here is to humanize, but not justify, the duo and their actions, and transform monsters back into men. In turn, this transformation makes for an effective psychological thriller: the villains we understand are infinitely more terrifying than the ones we do not.
Similarly, Fruitvale Station has no intention of turning the victim of its narrative, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), into a martyr. By employing a “day-in-the-life” narrative structure, Fruitvale Station presents its protagonist as flawed as any member of the audience, and thus immediately relatable. The film removes most of the distinction between Grant and anyone watching Grant’s struggles with parenthood, job security, and maturity, but in doing so emphasizes one critical difference: the disparity between the white and African American male experience of modern America. Is there anything other than skin color keeping white members of the audience from being shot in the back by a police officer while handcuffed on a metro platform? Certainly, Fruitvale Station draws our attention to injustice, but the aim here is not to incite or inflame; rather, the film invites us to turn inward, to inspect our own prejudices and hopefully, move beyond them.
Both Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice stand as excellent examples of filmmakers treating current events with respect, instead of exploiting our short term memories to turn a profit. Of course, it surprised me that these two carefully crafted films were the efforts of rookie directors: both Blue Caprice and Fruitvale Station are the first feature length movies from Alexander Moors and Ryan Coogler, respectively. But perhaps these directors’ novice status actually contributes to the effectiveness of their films. In Hollywood, with great success comes great ego, and a disproportional sense of self results in filmmakers who overestimate the importance of their personal agendas in relation to their movies. Don’t believe me? Watch any Michael Moore film. Watch that dreadful documentary from Dinesh D’Souza, 2016: Obama’s America. Even Zero Dark Thirty, considered by many to be one of last year’s best movies, suffers for Kathryn Bigelow’s myopic portrayal of torture in the hunt for Bin Laden. These filmmakers, unable to approach their chosen subjects with balance or restraint, render any potentially valid points about gun control, Obama’s presidency, or anti-terrorism efforts meaningless.
Luckily for audiences, neither Moors nor Coogler make that mistake, and so their films brim with meaning without feeling sentimental or inappropriate – no small feat for one movie about a murdered 22-year-old father and another about domestic terrorists. Film is a suitable medium to make a social, political, or cultural statement, and I reject claims that movies should function as brainless entertainment or simple wish-fulfillment. Nonetheless, the movie and the message must complement each other; if the message overwhelms the narrative, then the entire project falls apart. Worse, if a director insists on using an actual tragedy to advocate his or her own opinion, then he or she does nothing more than exploit the suffering of others for personal gain.
Conversely, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice exemplify the amazing potential of using non-fiction to enhance the significance of fictional cinema. Moors and Coogler realize this potential by remembering that when basing a movie on a true story, actually telling the story matters more than delivering any supposed “truth” to audiences. It’s not authenticity, but rather respectful publicity that gives these stories their power.