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.
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