Perhaps the best way to start trying to tackle such as question is to first of all debunk the myth that cinema ever shows you any sort of truth. Or failing that, that absolutely everything you are shown is true. Absolutely everything that is shown on cinema screens is a form of manipulation, whether you’re watching a synergy saturated action film or a political documentary. Even if the filmmaker really thinks that they are showing you the truth as much as they can, as Coogler has clearly tried to do, there is only so much truth that can ever be put across in a constructed piece of cinema. The great advantage that Coogler has is that the situation that is that the most important element of the story, that is, the fact that Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a police officer and was defenceless at the time, is backed up by solid evidence.
Coogler could have spoken to several different people in Grant’s life who all may have said various things about his character, which may have resulted in Michael B Jordan playing the role entirely differently, but the main purpose of the film, that is, to demonstrate the injustice of his death, has still been served.
But what happens when the ability to provide this sort of footage isn’t there? Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused is loosely based on the story of Cheryl Araujo, who was gang-raped by a group of men, publicly in a bar. The film follows Jodie Foster, from the incident to the trial. As well as the most obvious fact that Foster isn’t even the same race as Araujo, most of the story is changed quite significantly, perhaps to defend the identity of Araujo. The film focusses strongly on the victim-blaming culture against victims of sexual crimes, which Araujo had to face at her trial. So whilst a lot of the key elements of the story are far from the truth, Kaplan still gets across the important lessons that need to be learned from the crime that took place.
Even a film like Titanic, which at its core has an entirely fictional couple, whose story is perfectly crafted to ensure maximum audience appeal, still manages to be loyal, in some way, to the victims and survivors of the disaster. Whether Jack and Rose existed or not, there were people on the ship that died, people with loved ones waiting for them, and that is where the heart of the tragedy lies. They could’ve had the Titanic being sank by a giant squid, because it’s the human story, the story of the loss that thousands faced, that is at the heart of the tragedy; not of the steel and iron that built the ship.
There are literally thousands of films based on real events, with varying levels of ‘truth’ to them; Citizen Kane (we all know what Rosebud really was), Control, 24 Hour Party People, Rope, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Escape to Alcatraz; but what makes the film ‘truthful’ in the cinematic sense is that at its core it is trying to tell us something true about the world that it depicts.
Fruitvale Station is out now, and you can read our review here.