With the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, opening in USA theaters this weekend, I thought it would be worthwhile to open up a conversation about other biopics on the lives of black/Diaspora athletes.
There aren’t as many as you’d think, even though black athletes have long dominated most popular sports.
I’m not referring to documentaries; there are tons of those on black athletes. I’m interested in historical fiction scripted narratives (I suppose we could call them) based on the lives of real-life athletes.
How many have you seen? How many can you name?
There are recent titles like Ali (which starred Will Smith as Muhammad Ali), The Hurricane (Denzel Washington as middleweight boxer Rubin Carter), The Express (on the life of college football hero Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, played by Rob Brown), The Athlete, or Atletu in Amharic (the Ethiopian film on legendary marathoner Abebe Bikila, who, in 1960, competed in the Rome Olympic Games, barefoot, as a complete unknown, and won the gold medal, repeating his feat 4 years later at the Tokyo Olympic Games, becoming the first man to win the Olympic marathon twice in a row), and even The Tiger Woods Story (which starred Khalil Kain).
What else can you think of?
Of course, there’ve been countless announced biopics over the years that haven’t been realized, and it’s anyone’s guess whether they will eventually become realities.
For example, director Barry Levinson is developing a project on Hank Aaron, which was first announced last spring; Anthony Mackie has long been trying to make a film on Jesse Owens, calling it his dream project; Wil Haygood’s acclaimed biography Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson was optioned in 2010 to be adapted for David Oyelowo to star; Spike Lee has been trying to get his Save Us, Joe Louis project produced forever; Earlier last year, producer Hal Lieberman (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Vacancy) acquired rights to football legend/actor Jim Brown’s life story for a feature film to be written by Bob Eisele (The Great Debaters) and directed by Jonathan Hock; In 2010, actor Dermot Mulroney was said to be working on a biopic on the life of Liberian soccer star-turned-politician, George Weah; a biopic on black British soccer star Laurie Cunningham, was announced in 2010. Anthony Mackie and Ashley Walters have been mentioned as possible candidates to star; Brazilian soccer legend Pelé – born Edison Arantes do Nascimento – will be the subject of a scripted feature film backed by Ron Howard’s and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment…
And there are others; this is just a sample of what may or may not be to come.
I’ve previously said on this blog that I’m not a fan of conventional birth-to-death biopics. With the Internet making it relatively easy for anyone to quickly pull up a basic biography of any public personality, I’m not sure I need a reconstruction of someone’s life from their childhood to the day they died (usually). I also don’t know if I watch biopics to necessarily learn anything about the person at the center of each film, so I’m all for turning the idea of the biopic on its head, and creating something fresh, inventive and exciting, that still manages to capture the essence of the person whose story the film is inspired by – think of a film like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There as an example.
I’m especially looking forward to Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis project, which, from all I’ve heard and read from those familiar enough with the film, is quite an unconventional ride. Cheadle himself has said that he’s taking more of an avant-garde approach to the project, and that he isn’t concerned with what he called “wall-to-wall truths.”
That’ll probably turn some people off, but I feel like the basic template of biopics of the past, through about the end of the 20th century, is dull and maybe even antiquated.
But back to biopics on athletes of the African diaspora…
Of those that already exist, which are your favorites (feel free to add to my above list)? And of those that have been announced but haven’t been produced yet, which are you most looking forward to?