The silver lining around every senseless tragedy is that eventually, someone will make a Sundance movie about it. Audiences will cry. They will express righteous indignation over the injustice. The best of these films shed light on larger societal issues and help bring about change; the worst of them are just sadness porn.
Two films in this year's lineup, Valentine Road and Fruitvale (both at the better end of the spectrum), demonstrate the different ways of tackling real-life tragedies. Valentine Road is about the February 2008 murder of a gay, biracial eighth grader by a classmate who shot him in the head during school. Fruitvale is about the New Year's Eve 2008 shooting of an unarmed 22-year-old black man by an Oakland transit cop. Both incidents took place in California, involved young minorities, and sparked public outcry. Neither victim had a spotless record, but both deaths were inarguably unjustified and heinous.
The difference: Valentine Road is a documentary, and Fruitvale is a "based on a true story" narrative. Did the filmmakers take the right approach? Did they do justice to their subjects? We will consider these questions and try not to make too many inappropriate jokes as we do, because Sundance is serious business.
Fruitvale is the better of the two films, for reasons we'll get to shortly. It stars 25-year-old Michael B. Jordan -- whom you'll recognize as Wallace from The Wire, Vince Howard from Friday Night Lights, or Alex from Parenthood -- as Oscar Grant, an ex-con and reformed drug dealer who was shot after a scuffle on a BART train in the early hours of January 1, 2009. Writer-director Ryan Coogler starts the film with cell phone footage of the actual incident, which was captured by witnesses and immediately went viral. From there he goes back 24 hours, dramatizing -- and fictionalizing -- Oscar Grant's last day.
Oscar has a girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and a young daughter (Ariana Neal), both of whom he loves immensely. He's good to his mother (Octavia Spencer) and grandmother (Marjorie Shears). He smokes too much weed and has served time for selling it, but in the months since his parole has been working at a grocery store and trying to go straight. Coogler paints him as a decent person who has made serious mistakes but desires reform, and Jordan's earnest performance makes it difficult not to side with him.
I don't know how accurate the details of Oscar's final 24 hours are, but Coogler has obviously taken some dramatic license. It is highly unlikely, for example, that Oscar Grant dumped a big bag of weed into the ocean to symbolize his determination to leave that life behind on the very day that he was to be killed (or ever, for that matter). Did Oscar and Sophina really have such crucial conversations on December 31, 2008? Probably not -- nor are we really supposed to believe they did. As moviegoers, we realize that "based on a true story" leaves the door open for a great deal of narrative fudging. As long as the core elements are essentially accurate, we're OK with it.
Coogler makes effective use of this leeway, telling a bare, unadorned story that quietly builds to a powerful conclusion. The final scenes, with Octavia Spencer sensitively conveying a mother's grief, made emotional wrecks of more than a few people at Monday's press and industry screening in Park City, myself included. How can you not cry at so tragic a story?
Where Coogler goes wrong is in trying to bring it back to reality. The movie ends with on-screen titles telling us what became of the cop who shot Oscar, how video of the shooting was seen by millions on the Internet, and how protests and demonstrations soon followed. (Coogler even includes footage of the memorial held on New Year's Day 2013 -- a mere 18 days before Fruitvale premiered at Sundance.) But in doing this, Coogler jars us out of our "based on a true story" mindset and invites us to scrutinize what we've just seen as a faithful and authentic re-creation of events. Such scrutiny doesn't do the movie any favors.
Fruitvale tells us that the cop claimed he meant to use his taser but grabbed his gun instead. Our reaction is to scoff at this excuse, and to shake our heads at the leniency shown to the police officer. But in fact, witnesses said they heard the officer say, "Stand back, I'm gonna taze him!" before he fired -- a detail that is not included in Coogler's re-creation of the event. That doesn't matter much when it's a "based on a true story" (i.e., possibly heavily fictionalized) movie. We don't need all the facts when what we're watching is openly, admittedly not intended to be a faithful document. But when it's followed by real footage of Oscar's daughter at the New Year's Day memorial gathering, with sober pronouncements about the real-life injustice of it all, such omissions do start to matter.
Valentine Road, being a documentary, avoids those problems and encounters different ones. Led by director Marta Cunningham, the filmmakers make their point of view clear. The 14-year-old killer, Brandon McInerney, was the troubled child of meth addicts and violent psychopaths (his father once shot his mother, an incident which did not end their relationship), as well as a budding neo-Nazi, a bully, and a general all-around a-hole. The victim, 15-year-old Lawrence "Larry" King, was gay, effeminate, tiny for his age, and had bounced around foster homes his whole life. He wore heels and makeup to school, called himself by girls' names, and flirted openly with boys, undaunted by what you can well imagine were hostile reactions from his middle school classmates.
Larry embarrassed Brandon by asking him, in front of his friends, to be his valentine. The next day, Brandon took a gun to school, sat behind Larry in class for 30 minutes, then shot him twice in the head.
While Fruitvale focuses on the events leading up to its tragedy, Valentine Road is primarily about the aftermath. A person taking a gun to school and looking at the back of someone's head for a half hour before shooting him might sound like premeditated murder -- it might sound like the actual definition of "premeditated murder," in fact -- but Brandon McInerney's lawyers basically argued a "gay panic" defense. Brandon was so embarrassed and infuriated by Larry's frequent attention, his endless parading around bein' all gay 'n' stuff, that he finally snapped. Brandon was himself a troubled lad; should the court put him in prison for the rest of his life over one youthful indiscretion (i.e., cold-blooded, premeditated murder)?
To watch Valentine Road is to be clumsily but effectively manipulated. Larry is represented by loving friends and compassionate teachers, who describe him as friendly, kind and gentle. To counter this, there are villains: jurors and teachers who blame Larry for what happened to him. "Sure, sure, Brandon shouldn't have murdered him," they say (I'm paraphrasing). "That was uncalled for. But what did he expect?" In a way, some of these people say -- and this is not a paraphrase -- Larry was the one bullying Brandon.
We are enraged by this. How could an educator talk like this? How did people so hateful and ignorant end up on the jury? Brandon's defense lawyers talk about him like he's a martyr, a victim of circumstances who can scarcely be blamed for shooting the gay kid who flirted with him. If you walk out of Valentine Road without fire in your blood, you're a monster.
Or perhaps you're resistant to the machinations of single-minded documentary filmmakers. Few things in life are as cut-and-dried as Valentine Road makes this case out to be, and just as in Fruitvale, certain details are omitted in order to bolster the filmmakers' point of view. The extent to which Larry harassed Brandon and other boys is drastically downplayed. An article in Newsweek (from before the trial) reported that he'd loudly taunt them in the halls ("I know you want me") and while changing clothes in the locker room. By all accounts he frequently crossed the line into unacceptable behavior: surely no one would have tolerated it if he'd been harassing girls that way. He stalked Brandon so closely that he knew when Brandon had a minor scratch on his arm. He told people that he and Brandon had been boyfriends.
Obviously, none of this justifies Brandon's actions. No reasonable person would say that it does. But it does make the issue more complicated than the extremely black-and-white Valentine Road suggests it is. Why not share all the relevant information with us and let us draw our own conclusions? Well, because that's not as emotionally satisfying, that's why.
It's a misconception that documentaries are supposed to be journalistic, evenhanded evaluations of all sides of an issue. They CAN be like that, of course, but it's not a requirement. Some docs are front-page news stories; some belong on the opinion page. Both methods are valid, but they don't both work equally well for all stories. The sad case of Larry King and Brandon McInerney -- and it is sad, every bit of it, for both of them -- could have been a rich, complex, discussion of numerous issues: gay rights, bullying, gun control, public schools, the foster-care system, and more. To emphasize one element to the exclusion of all others, no matter how good your intentions are, trivializes the lives involved.
Bookmark our Sundance coverage here.
Follow our Sundance coverage on Twitter: