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What Makes A Great Biopic? Discuss...

by Nijla Mumin
August 21, 2013 4:31 PM
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'What's Love Got to Do With It?'

Do you remember the feeling of watching a perfectly sculpted Angela Bassett breathe pain and life into the microphone as Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It?" In the film, Turner's "Proud Mary" becomes a salvation song, the performance a cathartic, explosive release for Turner during years of abuse and rising stardom. Its dramatic mix of golden shingled-dresses, penetrating vocals and embodied performances delivers a deeper understanding of the person it attempts to portray.

'The Last King of Scotland'

The subject of biopics seems to be on a lot of lips lately, especially those about Black figures. Films about Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix are all expected within the next year, with much controversy and anticipation. But here's a chance to step back from that more fiery debate, and into one that actually considers the ingredients of a successful biopic. What makes the audience feel they've entered the world and life of a popular figure, which they've been allowed to access intimate moments that ring with authenticity and depth?

Casting stands as an integral component, and not just in regard to a physical likeness between the actor and the person they're portraying. Recall Forest Whitaker as a terrifying, yet jovial, Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," directed by Kevin Macdonald. Facial features between them aren't exact, but the way in which Whitaker enters Amin's body is nothing but. He achieves the posture of Amin, the deathly glare that quickly dissolves into an absorbing laughter, and the specific Ugandan accent. Alternate between speeches of Idi Amin and scenes from "The Last King of Scotland" and you'll notice Whitaker's exact replication of this man, an artistic commitment that helped secure his Academy Award win for Best Actor in 2006. You'll also notice the keen level of detail in every aspect of the production—from Amin's military suit to his wife Kay's cornrows.

'Introducing Dorothy Dandridge'

Other than casting, there's a more structural element involved in the writing and directing of these stories that involves presenting these people as humans, rather than "stars," "saints" or complete villains. This is where extensive research becomes essential. In the 1999 television film "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," a wall is broken down when the audience experiences Dandridge's 1954 Academy Award loss with her. She sits in the audience almost holding her breath, and we do as well, even though the outcome is evident. It's a fascinating moment that brings in the larger context of racism that Dandridge faced during that time, and that many Black actresses still face today.

This balance of the portrayal is probably one of the more important ingredients of the biopic—between these figures' internal conflicts and their love for their craft, between their mistreatment of the people close to them, and the love they share with their mother or father. We want to be in the presence of a fully developed person, and understand the basis for their talent: how a blind child named Ray Charles became a musician, how Tina Turner's impromptu rehearsals in her mother's house led to mega-stadiums, or how Malcolm X's painful "conk" experience at the barbershop laid the groundwork for his encouragement of black pride and self-love later on. These flawed, proud, and beautiful moments become explorations of some of the most beloved public figures.

So, what do you look for in a quality biopic?

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  • Introspective Man | August 21, 2013 5:17 PMReply

    The test of any good biopic is if the story can stand on its own, if the subject of the biopic DID NOT exist in real life.

  • IGBO | August 23, 2013 4:52 AM

    That's true, but what is also important is choosing the period of the subject's life to cover. Not every biopic should be a "cradle to grave" story.

  • smpam` | August 21, 2013 5:14 PMReply

    Depends on the person. Making them human and relying more on personal traits that only those closest know about seems like the most profitable thing to do, that way the audience relates to them as a human being and at the same time disassociates the icon from their recognizable image making the character almost brand new. This is apparent in Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh. All facets of his personality are on display and he's no longer this monument to art, but a very burdened and burdensome human being. All the other stuff is up in the air, but a director's touch should be felt I feel. Malcolm X is amazing because of how Spike Lee directed it. Goodfellas is exciting because of how Scorcese shot and edited the whole thing. An Angel at My Table is amazing because Campion knows where to point the camera. Don't use the last decade of biopics to determine how to tell a person's real life story. Today they rely too much on the familiar moments in that person's life so the audience can supposedly feel like they're following a road map of their career that periodically stops at emotional turmoil. Walk Hard breaks down the current biopic pretty well.

  • IGBO | August 23, 2013 5:00 AM

    @RAJIV PANDIT. "42" (or "The Courtmartial of Jackie Robinson" for that matter) was effective because it just focuses on a seminal moment in his life.
    @SMPAM. While overall I liked "Malcolm X," I felt Spike Lee spent too much time focusing on the earlier part of his life and too little on Malcolm's spiritual journey.

  • Rajiv Pandit | August 21, 2013 5:27 PM

    "42" comes to mind as an example of a biopic that focuses on a seminal moment in the life of the protagonist rather than capturing the entire sweep of their life, but I suppose a snapshot profile of a person does not rise to the level of biopic the author posits in this article. I found "Basquiat" to be rather satisfying because it captured not only the artist but his milieu. I thought Jeffrey Wright's performance mesmerizing. What elevated this biopic is that the director himself was a painter and had intimate knowledge of many of the characters in the story.

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