‘Based on a true story,’ ‘Discover the truth behind the legend,’ ‘What you are about to see actually happened.’ Of last week’s eight Academy Award ‘Best Picture’ nominees, six of them were ‘inspired by true events.’
Whilst some films such as Roma and The Favourite simply interpreted a true story, others like BlacKkKlansman and Vice aimed to galvanise social outrage and political mobilisation. These striking and successful films carefully deployed a ‘true story’ moniker to be poignant and profitable at great expense to the actual truth. True story cinema cannot intend to inform the truth if it privileges entertainment through scandalisation or reverence. Authorial intent ought to balance the precise research with Hollywood spectacle that big screen audiences in the ‘fake news’ era demand.
It is unfortunate then that BlacKkKlansman and Vice, the two films marketed on their confrontation of polarising political tensions ultimately render an oversimplified ‘truth lite’ of their subjects. Yet don’t let it be said that these were bad films. By all aesthetic accounts they had good reason to attain some measure of praise. Spike Lee won the Cannes film festival’s ‘Grand Prix’ award, its second highest honour, for BlacKkKlansman. Nonetheless, it received targeted criticism for its characterisation of a police officer as a hero in post-civil rights era America. Hip-hop artist and director Boots Riley spoke out on Twitter shortly after the release of the film last August, critiquing the films’ conferral of hero status on its protagonist and real-life inspiration Ron Stallworth. Riley identified that systemic inequality in “payscale, housing, healthcare and other material quality of life issues” are the predominant experiences which African-Americans confront today, areas not touched on by Lee.
Additionally, the films’ moral absolution of the police institution from their contribution to escalated racial tensions, disproportionately targeting African-American people, remains a factor despite these tensions enduring in the present as exemplified in the well-documented killings of Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile.
Ultimately, the punch of the films’ message of social mobilisation is watered down by its adherence to a filmmaking model which demands a traditional hero; co-opted by familiar white institutions that ignore the truth of contemporary race struggles in America.
Similar to BlacKkKlansman in constructing an intended movie ‘hero’, Adam McKay’s Vice forgoes detailing much of the Gulf War, during which it’s subject Dick Cheney was accountable as Secretary of Defence. Nor is the invasion of Iraq and the fear-mongering leading to consolidation of executive power in the United States depicted in little more than a few short montages. These scenes do little more than have the audience perceive Vice President Cheney as the worlds’ Bond villain of the early 2000s. Vice narrates the ‘truth’ of America’s thinly-veiled imperialist and exceptionalist foreign policy in the aftermath of September 11, as Cheney’s personal desire for power, and nothing more. Christian Bale makes an utterly convincing Dick Cheney — pitch-perfect speaking mannerisms and all — but when the audience is made to not only revere him, but also empathise with his journey from wayward country boy to political powerhouse, the Hollywood ‘truth movie’ model where Dick Cheney is a hero leaves the impression of a story haphazardly told. When it seems as though a film can’t decide to be driven by its political contentions or a narrativisation of the characters embroiled in them, the finer details are treated with kid gloves or not at all.
What guides filmmakers to find truth in ‘true story’ films will always be a contentious discussion. Undoubtedly, it remains a dangerous manipulation to recount something inherently problematic and polarising. Whether lesser commercial and financial pressures like in Australia’s publicly-funded film industry can give way to a more faithful level of truth in films such as Rabbit Proof Fence or Balibo, depends on Hollywood’s priorities. True story cinema and its uncomfortable connection to an ultimately santisied entertainment product seems as though it will continue to populate Hollywood for many years to come.
Hopefully time will beget the realisation of the whole truth and nothing but.