Artists have been producing films about famous historical figures since George Méliès’ 1900 silent film Joan of Arc. Beyond inspiring the slew of films about the same divine martyr that followed, Méliès’ film kicked off an entire genre of films paying tribute to famous actors and musicians, history-making activists, and controversial politicians: the biopic.
Art is a vital reflective element of history, and filmmaking is reflective of the figures considered pivotal at the time they were made. Films about historical activists and genre-defining artists (like Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Frida Kahlo, Stephen Hawking, Harvey Milk, the list goes on) are undeniably important to contextualize their accomplishments and educate audiences en masse.
However, it’s time for filmmakers to pump the brakes on creating celebrity biopics. While there is certainly merit to explaining the past of famous artists and the history surrounding them, here are the reasons filmmakers should branch out from the age-old celebrity biopic.
Often Surrounded by Controversy
From the director of the documentary Leaving Neverland protesting the making of another Michael Jackson biopic to Tina Turner confessing to Oprah that she wished that the creators behind her What’s Love Got to Do With It biopic hadn’t portrayed her as a victim in her personal and professional relationship with Ike Turner, many biopics result in contention from their subjects, their audiences, their critics, or a combination of all three. Many directors and producers of films about real people and events take artistic liberties, as is standard in any creative venture, but can often spark vitriol in biopics when celebrities with painful pasts are painted in a less than flattering light.
On the flip side, if a biopic skims over too many unpleasant memories of a celebrity, audiences and critics respond with an outcry of disapproval that the film wasn’t gritty, realistic, or genuine enough.
Formulaic at Best, Offensive at Worst
It seems like every biopic based on a celebrity starts the same: a small town kid is exceptionally talented but unrecognized, so they find a way to The Big City and make it big, only to get caught up in some vice or another, all while the public scrutinizes their every move. Chaos ensues, audiences watch their protagonist grow and mature into their beloved present day selves, et cetera. Making sure the subject and their families are pleased, while keeping the story as factual and entertaining as necessary, is a difficult line to walk, made even more challenging by the fact that producers and production companies may not be satisfied with the final product either.
Beyond that, the real life people portrayed as the antagonists or villains can also lash out at the filmmakers, citing factual inaccuracies and blatant lies. The resulting confusion as to where the facts end and the fictional story begins can often go so far as to eclipse the film itself.
Other Creative Content Would Serve Audiences Better
It’s important to contextualize historical figures and events, and there’s no denying that biopics are a great way to get the public interested in those figures and events. Films like Malcolm X, Harriet, Hidden Figures, and many more dramatize the events surrounding people who dedicated their lives to human rights and bettering the lives of marginalized people. While they are rarely completely rooted in facts and accuracies (they do still need to tell a cohesive story in a limited amount of time, sell tickets, and be entertaining, after all), these films bring important historical individuals back to the forefront of the public’s mind, educating audiences about their significance and contextualizing their accomplishments.
Other alternatives to the celebrity biopic include simply writing new, fictional stories: the opportunity to start a new story and characters from scratch is just as entertaining as a character study of a known celebrity, if not more so. Writers can draw inspiration from real life people and events, of course, and the fictitious aspect allows the writers, directors, and producers more creative liberties, as the crews are not beholden to a real person with legitimate and potentially negative reactions or the clout to share them.
The celebrity biopic has been a staple in filmmaking for decades, celebrating every famous entertainer from musicians like Tina Turner and Freddie Mercury to actors like Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. While these celebrities’ notable accomplishments have certainly earned accolades and recognition from their audiences and their peers, biopics are rarely a controversy-free way to celebrate these stars. The subjects of these films can often have strong negative responses to seeing themselves portrayed as anything other than their carefully constructed public image, sometimes reasonably so (and sometimes not).