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 subject of biopics seems to be on a lot of lips lately, especially those about Black figures. Films about Jackie Robinsons, James Brown, Martin Luther King Jr, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Bessie Smith, and others (see “50+ Biopics on Black Public Figures Still ‘In Limbo’“) were either released, or are expected to be released within the next year or two, 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.
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?
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She’s written for The Los Angeles Times, Vice, and Bitch Media.