Biopics have been a staple of Hollywood for decades. Typically pushed during awards season, they tend to be splashy money-makers and attention-grabbers for studios and stars alike. And in recent years, there’s been an explosion of biopics starring black people. There are dozens of black biopics in various stages of development, including films depicting Bob Marley, Tupac, and Richard Pryor.
At first glance, the proliferation of black biopics seem promising, with black actors being able to sink their teeth into lead roles depicting dynamic, inspirational, powerful characters. Often they get to portray the racism and struggles they endure by being black in predominately white arenas—the music industry, professional baseball, the White House. Life imitates art!
But when one begins to look closer, the phenomenon becomes increasingly frustrating.
These films get greenlit for a reason: Studios see the black biopic as a safe investment. Most have tiny budgets, which can often equal major returns. 2013’s Jackie Robinson biopic, “42,” did just that, bringing in $95 million on a $40 million budget. If a studio makes the rare move of going all in on a picture—a prime Oscar season release; a bankable, star-powered cast—like 2013’s “The Butler,” it can prove to be even more profitable. That film brought in $116 million for Anchor Bay, Starz and The Weinstein Company on a $30 million budget.
But mostly these roles just feel like a consolation prize for not being in contention with their white peers for non-biopic roles. Black lead actors aren’t allowed to be anonymous adorkable dreamgirls or neurotic teachers—they have to be some of the most inspirational people in history.
And if you compare black biopics to their white counterparts, the fanfare and buzz the former receives is nothing compared to the latter. Despite the Jennifer Lawrence drama “Joy” being a critical disappointment, it was still marketed to no end by its distributor, 20th Century Fox, it still received an outrageous amount of press, and it was viewed as an Oscar vehicle for Lawrence and her co-stars. This was a bad film, guys. And yet, it would never have been dumped into an August release or gone unnoticed. Even Lawrence’s breakout role in the haunting “Winter’s Bone”—not a biopic, but a subdued story about a fictional character—led to an Oscar nomination.
Compare her resume to a black actor like Chadwick Boseman. Boseman has been working steadily since 2003, including roles on “Law and Order,” “Justified,” and “Fringe.” He is just beginning to pop, recently nabbing a coveted Marvel universe franchise. In his career, he has already played Jackie Robinson and James Brown, and is set to play Thurgood Marshall later this year. Why are these the only roles available to an actor of his talent?
The problem in film becomes even more apparent when you look at the deliciously plum roles for black people on the small screen. Shonda Rhimes has given us countless characters of color who are sexy, duplicitous, and complicated. Taraji P. Henson's audacious, snappy portrayal of “Relatable Black Auntie” Cookie Lyons helped make “Empire” one of the most popular shows on network television. We’ve got Gabrielle Union, Tracee Ellis-Ross, Danai Gurira and others playing exciting roles elsewhere on television.
In Hollywood, though, it’s all about the staid, noble historical figures—and most of those figures are men.
If you take a gander at some of the black biopics in development, the vast majority of them are about dudes. Sure, there’s Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith in last year’s “Bessie” and Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in the upcoming film “Confirmation.” But it’s worth noting that these are both TV movies, not major motion picture releases. They have the prestige and nuance of HBO, but not the distribution of, say, 20th Century Fox. Besides, "Confirmation" focuses on the narrow historical event of Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court hearings; it’s not a strict birth-to-death tale.
The central problem here is the very concept that white studios have to “bet” on black biopics. Unless it concerns a white guy, studios only give chances to the status quo—for female-driven films it’s the rom-com. And while there are well written, clever rom-coms out there, there are many other interesting stories waiting to be put on screen for women. The same goes for the black biopic. Hollywood doesn’t give black people the space to explore smaller, quieter characters who aren’t already household names. The Noah Baumbachs and Joe Swanbergs of the world aren’t casting black actors to star in their uber-white mumblecore quirkfests. (There couldn’t be one black person in “Mistress America”? “Drinking Buddies”? “While We’re Young”?) And Hollywood doesn’t make much room for those directors’ black counterparts.
Even when a historical event does center on a person of color, Hollywood is tempted to whitewash the story. The internet exploded upon the release of the trailer for the upcoming “Nina,” which stars the light-skinned Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. As it’s been tirelessly noted, an essential part of Simone’s music and identity was her blackness. To reveal Zoe Saldana in full blackface, including a prosthetic nose, was insulting.
Sometimes, Hollywood will straight-up cast a white person to play a person of color. While 2007’s “A Mighty Heart” was an emotional and well received adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s powerful memoir, its casting of Angelina Jolie as the lead was a major misstep. Pearl is biracial, of Afro-Chinese-Cuban and Jewish Dutch descent; Jolie is not. Jolie’s portrayal mercifully did not involve blackface makeup or over-the-top minstrel-like antics (though it did include a ridiculous wig). But it still offended moviegoers, especially when there are were a number of talented biracial and actors of color who could have filled that role.
Even when an actual black person is cast in a movie, the formula is uncanny: Boy grows up in poverty, boy grapples with racism, boy achieves greatness, boy almost loses it all, boy becomes legend. Are the narratives of “42,” “Race,” “Get on Up,” “The Butler,” and “Ray,” even distinguishable from one another? Compare them to the highly specific, wildly different arcs of “The Social Network,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Moneyball,” “Into The Wild,” “Milk,” and “Marie Antoinette.” Some of these characters are notorious; others are beloved. They all feel like individual films and attract big name directors. Black biopics simply don’t get the same treatment. Their inspirational intent rings hollow when we feel like we’re watching the same movie again and again.
Black audiences want to see black actors in daring, provocative, and relatable roles on screen—the kind white actors are considered for all the time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see Idris Elba considered for Clooney-esque roles? Aren’t we far more excited for Chadwick Boseman’s turn as a Marvel superhero than one of his interchangeable biopic roles? The black biopic dwells on our past, but what's more inspirational and influential is seeing black actors break new ground. Having them play superheroes, spies, and CEOs—or even just weird, everyday people—is more progressive than yet another movie about a distinguished black icon.
Eva Morreale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Jezebel and The Hairpin. A reluctant LA transplant, her under 140 character rants can be found on Twitter @literallE