David Foster Wallace and Hollywood's obsession with white guy biopics

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Hollywood loves to take a genius, or an athlete, or a politician — a notable figure whose life was important — and dramatize his story for the silver screen. A big shot actor is called in to gain (or lose) weight and develop every tick of this brilliant person, and these stories become biopics. Or, at least, they become biopics if the genius/athlete/politician was a white dude.


Today, the new movie about David Foster Wallace — the great American essayist and novelist — hits screens across America. The End of the Tour tells the true story of a five-day interview with Foster Wallace by Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky. In the film, Foster Wallace is on tour for what would become his most defining work, the mammoth, footnoted novel Infinite Jest.

The movie may not cover Foster Wallace's entire life, but it can certainly be considered a biopic. And it's one of many films about notable white men.

The proof: I surveyed 120 famous, high-grossing films to see how they stacked up. These are movies that made a minimum of 3 million dollars at the domestic box office (not adjusted for inflation) and have received some level of critical acclaim — measured in this instance using Metacritic. It is not comprehensive, but it is certainly enlightening.

When we look at this data, the wealth of stories about white men becomes overwhelming. Not only are people of color rarely portrayed in major theater releases (17.5 percent), but women too are very overlooked (20 percent).

It's amazing that in a society that is 50 percent women and almost 40 percent people of color, that 65 percent of biopics are about white men. (On top of that, of the 78 movies surveyed about white men, only two of them are about openly gay white men.)


The men that this list celebrates are often incredibly talented and influential individuals whose lives deserve massive Hollywood productions. These are the movies about incredible pianists, and wonderful writers, and religious leaders. One could maybe even argue that a movie about David Foster Wallace could belong in this group. But for every truly great white man, there are five movies about a crime lord or a boxer. What's amazing about the biopics we make for white men is that they have to do so much less to be considered worthy of our admiration.

The stories of women and people of color — stories like Hotel Rwanda, Monster, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — are incredible feats of the human psyche. They are stories of people who were faced with massive struggles and managed to overcome them through wit and fight. More often than not, the stories about men are redemption narratives; men who recover from drug addictions to become boxers or —even better— men whose genius is so troubling that it becomes their biggest problem in and of itself.


Does Hollywood think that people don't want to see movies about women and people of color? Or that female-fronted movies perform poorly? Or maybe, since the numbers of women working in Hollywood are so dismal, and the film industry isn't focused on diversity, we've got a bunch of white men greenlighting movies about white men, even white men who are still alive (Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg).

There is, for example, a biopic about the man who wrote Peter Pan (Finding Neverland), but no biopics of Toni Morisson, Mae West, Charlotte Brontë, Celia Cruz or Lorraine Hansberry.


The thing about biopics, more so than an other dramatized motion picture, is that they are supposed to tell us who is worthy of reverence — who among us had led a life worthy of story, worthy of praise and admiration. A biopic tells us, the general population, that genius exists and that within each of us there might also be a tiny glimmer of what this person had.

This isn't to say that David Foster Wallace, whose mind was one of the best of the 21st century, doesn't deserve to be idolized.


But what does it tell the generations of women and people of color who have watched hundreds of movies about true to life straight white men become geniuses in the span of 120 minutes, but no one who looks like them? For young white men, how does watching dozens of men who look like you grow up to be geniuses who are better than everyone impact the way you see yourself?

It's not that stories about white men are bad. Every movie on this list is a truly good movie. The trouble is that white men aren't the only ones whose stories are worth telling and they certainly aren't the only ones who have transformed, inspired, and pushed society to new limits. People of every color and gender have done that, and it makes us better, as a society, to know their stories as well.



Women working in Hollywood: The numbers are dismal

Hollywood is shooting itself in the foot by not focusing on diversity

Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.