Sad Movies Versus Depressing Movies

I love sad movies, but I can’t stand depressing movies.

What’s the difference? It’s the way you feel at the end.

Two recent movies about race and tragedy in America illustrate the distinction.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Image credit: Fox Searchlight, via Screencrush.

12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. During his years of forced labor on a plantation, he had to witness and endure unspeakable brutality. As viewers, we do the same–though at a safe distance.

12 Years is powerful. But for all its high production values and sterling performances, it’s ultimately a depressing movie. I walked out of it nauseated and feeling hopeless about American civilization.

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Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station. Image credit: The Weinstein Company, via Us Magazine.

In sharp contrast is Fruitvale Station, which also came out last year and also tells a remarkably sad true story. Fruitvale is about Oscar Grant, a young black man who was shot and killed by police in an Oakland, CA train station on New Year’s Eve 2009.

I’m glad I watched Fruitvale at home, since I cried loudly at several parts. But while I was heartbroken at the end, I was not for a moment depressed. That’s because the writer/director, Ryan Coogler, infuses the story with humor and humanity.

The film follows Oscar on the last day of his life. We see him playing with his young daughter and buying food he can’t afford for his mom’s birthday dinner. Amid this normality, and the everyday tensions of Oscar’s life, you can feel what’s coming, like the distant rumble of a train.

What breaks your heart is how close Oscar gets to making it–to escaping from the trap he’s in as a young black American male with a criminal history. He almost makes it. But not quite.

I’m not saying these two movies have the same objective or are telling the same tale. But after watching Fruitvale, I felt moved and inspired–inspired to write a movie that good someday, to learn more about the reasons our country’s justice system is so sick and broken.

After 12 Years a Slave, I felt like I’d been bludgeoned for a couple of hours. With a really beautiful weapon.

We are shown in the opening moments of Fruitvale that Oscar will get killed. You would think that this might reduce the film’s tension. But in a weird way, it invested me more deeply in Oscar’s story.

It’s like when you watch Hamlet. You know things aren’t gonna end well for the Great Dane. But you can’t help hoping he’ll somehow turn the situation around.

Somehow, knowing Solomon will escape in 12 years takes me off the hook as a viewer. But watching Fruitvale, I want to save Oscar with my sheer desire for him and his family to be OK.

What do you think about these movies–or other sad movies?

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