Does art imitate life or is it the other way around?
Hollywood has long aimed to make the latter true.
Before people could even talk in movies, the silver screen was no stranger to projections of lessons of morality.
“City Lights” (1931) showed we ought not judge a book by its cover, “Metropolis” (1927) warned of the atrocities greed creates, and “Birth of a Nation” (1915) taught us that great filmmaking and extreme racism are surprisingly compatible (a lesson master propagandist Joseph Goebbels learned so well).
If there is any form of entertainment most appropriate for changing hearts and mind, movies are easily the go-to. They have universal appeal and you can get away with being preachy when you ingrain your message into a sparkly popcorn-stuffing spectacle.
And now in 2015, maybe more than ever, these social commentaries are coming to us not from the imaginations of the filmmakers, but from stories of real people and events dramatized into the camera.
Critical and popular attention have been captivated in the past few years by the real-life dramas of “Selma,” “American Sniper,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “Lincoln.”
Now the art is imitating life.
And if you want your presentation to be allegorical, what better story to convey that with than a true one?
People can’t argue “this isn’t applicable to real life” when it’s a story that comes from real life.
And productions like “12 Years a Slave” and “Dallas Buyers Club” have been considered, to different degrees, “important.” Putting movies on that sort of platform usually comes with a lot of scrutiny.
Often that scrutiny, which often has little to do with the movies’ merits, can derail any potential positives of the movie.
The problem with creating a message out of real life is that real life has a lot of nuances. People have vices that detract from their virtues; events have auxiliary details that smudge a black-and-white picture with a considerable amount of gray.
“American Sniper” got its wide release Jan. 16 and detailed the adventures of America’s deadliest marksman, Chris Kyle. It’s a movie that director Clint Eastwood has called “anti-war” and was aimed at enlightening audiences with the difficult experience of U.S. soldiers.
But after its sellout showings, the movie received a lot of criticism, not so much for the content of the movie, but for the story on which it is based. The protagonist of the movie is sympathetic and complex, whereas the real-life Chris Kyle was admittedly remorseless of his killings and claimed to love killing.
Likewise, “Selma” was also a box office hit, and re-exposed modern audiences to the methods and philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent resistance, and how they helped bring lasting change.
And yet media were less concerned with reviving a debate over the best ways to confront modern injustice, and more bemused by the movie’s mischaracterization of President Lyndon Johnson’s role as a hindrance of the Civil Rights movement.
If these reactions have taught us anything, it’s that the publics and critics will refuse to separate the drama from its inspiration — which, in a way, is too bad.
After all, the realities painted in the movies should be isolated unto themselves; everything outside is irrelevant.
But when audiences can pull up the backstory to a movie within seconds, all the outside noise comes flooding in. Hollywood can also learn from that, because it can use movies to convey values and instill compassion. When you want to do that, history is better left on the cutting room floor. It’s easy source material, but it’s almost impossible not to end up rewriting history to fit your plot, which in turn leads the media to rewrite the ideas of your movie to fit history.
It’s a lot safer and more lasting to create your own truth in a vacuum and hope life imitates you.
If there’s one thing from this I can promise, it’s that any dramatization of the Ferguson, Mo., unrest dramatized in the style of 2005’s “Crash” should be avoided at all costs. The public will crucify you and I’ll probably throw the first stone.