Based on a True Story…Again?

We’ve made no secret of our belief that Hollywood is producing just a few too many paint-by-numbers Black biopics, and this week’s announcement of a whopping four black-themed biopics was just a case in point. According to Rotten Tomatoes’ Weekly Ketchup, all systems are go for an “official” biographical drama on Martin Luther King Jr., with Steven Spielberg at the helm; Will and Jada’s Overbrook Entertainment (in concert with Sony Pictures) has acquired the rights to John Keller’s life story (an ex-Marine who oversaw the rescue of 244 fellow Katrina victims); and Denzel is mulling his third directorial project, a little pet project called Brother in Arms, about “the only tank unit in the European theater of World War II that was manned by all African Americans”–based on a book co-authored by Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

We should note that the latter project has no shooting date–and the Weekly Ketchup writers slyly suggest that, perhaps, this is because there’s already a black WWII flick in the works—a Tuskegee Airmen project, currently filming in Europe.

Here’s the thing: we love heralding Black accomplishments as much as the next guy–and far be it from us to stand in the way of Our Own Stories Being Told. But aren’t most of these films rather indistinguishable from one another? If you’ve seen Remember the Titans, you’ve seen Glory Road. If you’ve seen Ray, you seen Cadillac Records (or parts of it, anyway). If you’ve seen The Rosa Parks story, you’ve seen Boycott. If you’ve seen Ali, you’ve seen… Will Smith in one too many of these vanity projects.***

It isn’t that we don’t endorse Black films being greenlighted; we do. It isn’t that we don’t love our history; we do. It’s that biopics, as a genre, are largely rote oversimplifications of incredibly complex lives. And no matter how nuanced an actor’s performance (or, as in the case of Denzel as Melvin Tolson, how phoned in), the formulaic storytelling impedes any real understanding of the person’s struggles and, more importantly, the accomplishment(s) that warranted a film in the first place. They all sort of bleed together untill you’re like, “You remember that flick where Cuba Gooding’s in the submarine and he’s a cook who manned a gatling gun?”

The best way to know your history is to research it for yourself. All the swelling music and single-teared male stars in the world aren’t going to provide you comprehensive—or even accurate—knowledge of actual events. So these “First Black ___ to Do _____” biopics work best when you go into them with your facts about the film’s subject straight. That way, you’re just watching for entertainment value and voluntary emotional manipulation.

All that said, we have to admit, we’re more than a little bit amped about Josh Brolin’s genius plan to both produce and star in a John Brown biopic. You can never have enough films about bloody, if ill-fated slave revolts.


slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: and here:
  • The best way to know your history is to research it for yourself.

    Dude, you want everyone to be a historian? C’mon.

    (My worry about the MLK film is that Spielberg is so freaking sentimental. I really tend to dislike his movies, even when I “like” them, because they’re so goddamn manipulative and ultimately shallow.)

  • Grump

    Is it too much to ask for a Nat Turner/John Brown movie combo?

  • slb

    *** The asterisks in the body of this piece are there because I’d intended to iterate that the examples in that paragraph are a bit of an overstatement. Obviously, this films are distinguishable enough from one another to warrant their production, but they still tend to follow pretty predictable and/or interchangeable arcs.

  • lsn

    Re the black WW2 films – isn’t there also a Spike Lee one either filming or about to come out? Maybe they’re waiting on box office results from that.

    I’d like to think that seeing these kind of biopics inspires people to go and find out more – but given the number of people who seem to think that “Pearl Harbor” was an historically accurate film I doubt it.

  • lucas green

    Brilliant post, slb.

    But I wonder if it isn’t possible, even within the emotional nonsense of Hollywood, to do a good film that, in the span of 2 or 2 1/2 hours, gets to some basic non-bullshit truth about the subject.

    I’d guess that the less beatified the person in question is, the better a chance that the resulting film will feel like a human being’s life (so there’s zero chance of getting a good biopic of MLK– he’s our secular saint, and there are too many sensitivities at stake).

    The John Brown thing could potentially be interesting, actually. His life contains enough interesting ambiguities, and I don’t think folks would be offended one way or the other.

    Ah…who am I kidding? Hollywood’s got to make its money back. So, repeat after me: innocuous beginnings, youthful waywardness, awakening, struggle, and ultimate triumph.

  • LaJane Galt

    I hope Brolin goes buckwild as John Brown.

  • michaelTO61

    I think this all depends on the story you are going to tell. Are you going to try and do the whole life? That strikes me a a mistake because detail and character get swept aside for a series of events we all ready know or at least I know. I’d LIKE to see Coretta cussing him out and his kids crying when he was away for so long. I’d like to see some real doubt. I’d like to see if he was obnoxious. Mahalia Jackson said he was just a man. So let’s see what that really means. If they did something interesting with the form then I’d have no issue with paying to see a movie like this but I won’t be down with a movie that starts with a bullet ringing out in the dark and then takes us to said bullet ninety minutes later entering MLK’s head. Been there. Didn’t like it when I was there. Turn down the tshirt. What really gets me about all these movies is that there is SOOO much more that is more interesting than what they are putting forward. I wish more historians wrote screenplays.

  • young_

    This is a very interesting post. I’m not sure how to make sense of this issue– my initial, gut take is that America seems to have an overall disinterest in serious black fiction and that the studio execs know that tying these stories to “real life stories” is a way to make a lot more money off these projects. But do we have any info on how these films come to be in the first place? Are guys like Will Smith, Denzel and Cuba coming up with these ideas and actively pitching them to the studios?

  • Ron

    I think the problem here is simple. Black stories are only told in this historical “see, we’ve really help build the country,” sort of way that treats folk as relics, rather than living, breathing individuals who are diverse, complex and as multifaceted as others.

    But Hollywood thinks people don’t want to watch those movies and so, they market the few that make it out poorly and the whole think on these greenlighted flicks is that they’ll be instant box office draws and reiterate stuff we knew, give us a few morsels we didn’t and assuage the guilt of a souls for a few days until they retreat to their normal spots.

    I don’t know if there’s any way around it, since the capital tends to come from the same places and people can probably argue with their pocketbooks, but…I have no idea if that’d be right. Seems like it’ll take another generation and we’ve seemingly regressed from the 80s and what amounted to the golden years of black screen presence.

  • Okay, I just *know* you didn’t compare “Glory Road” to “Remember the Titans.”

    One is about basketball, and the other is about football and sucks. Hel-lo? 😉

  • Diana Barry Blythe

    Say that, PostBourgie! Say that! Educate yourselves, people!! 😀

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