Entertainment

Why It's Nearly Impossible to Make a Good Biopic

From 'All Eyez on Me' to 'Nina' to 'Lincoln,' there are a lot of ways to tell and/or ruin a life story.

by Tari Ngangura
Aug 23 2017, 7:20pm

All Eyez on Me via Summit Productions, Nina via Ealing Studios. | Graphic design by Noel Ransome 

In June of this year, All Eyez on Me, the much-anticipated biopic on the life of rap artist Tupac Shakur, was released to much fanfare and industry chatter. The project pulled in $12.8 million on its first day, a healthy number for a film whose main actors were relatively unknown. The film, however, struggled to build on its opening momentum and suffered a historic 78 percent drop in its second week which continued into the third and resulted in it being pulled from over 1,000 theaters.

Actress Jada Pinkett Smith, a childhood friend of Tupac, wrote several tweets criticizing the artistic liberties taken by both the director and screenwriters in the ways they chose to portray her relationship with the rapper. The film also failed to impress critics who commented on its sluggish pace and failure to capture the heart and soul of an artist who possessed copious amounts of both.

Hollywood is enamored with the production of biographical films—this week sees the release of yet another Bruce Lee biopic (Birth of the Dragon). But there's always been an uneasy quid pro quo between the creator and the muse. Usually, biopics insist on eulogizing their subjects, never taking the road less traveled which would require them to deliver a story without illusions, and the inclusion of lived experiences that could be deemed "unflattering" or irrefutably "vile." Today's inquisitive and critical viewers expect some semblance of authenticity, so a manufactured reality set up to appease a subject and their family will find itself having to justify oversights that will have made the biopic inaccurate to the audience. This is especially true if it's a film based on a public figure with a well-documented history. The digital age of readily available and free information in any place with a wifi connection has made it virtually impossible to tell a life story and not be questioned on its validity if supposed vital details are left out.

Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, which is largely considered to be his best film, is a biopic that explored age-old themes of love, loyalty, and the relentless pursuit of greatness. The conventionality of the plot could have easily led to a prosaic and hackneyed storyline, were it not for Scorsese's unflinching camera lens, De Niro's outstanding turn as LaMotta, and a carefully penned script. Philip Seymour Hoffman's visceral portrayal of writer Truman Capote, Jamie Foxx's unforgettable reenactment of musician Ray Charles, and Halle Berry's mesmerizing rendition of Dorothy Dandridge are a select trio of memorable and award-winning performances, that succeeded within the confines of biographical films. These successes prove that when executed well, and if you tell the right story, a biopic can please both the audience and critics.

Nathalie Younglai, a Toronto-based director, and screenwriter behind the Korean-Canadian comedy film Stand up Man, told VICE about the compromises one must make when writing a biographical film. "When it comes to writing a biopic script it depends on what you want to achieve. A documentary depends on how much archival footage you have access to, whereas a biopic lets you dramatize the story you are trying to tell a lot better than a documentary would," she said.

Stepping into biopic territory typically means unleashing a Pandora's box of complications, be it from poor actor selection, weak storytelling, or conflicting views on the artistic vision. Malcolm X, the 1992 biopic directed by Spike Lee endured intense public scrutiny and criticism before its release. Backlash began when Warner Bros. first selected Norman Jewison, a white Canadian, to direct the picture. This led to protests that ultimately ended with Jewison stepping away from the film. Production budgets then threatened to derail the project, with Spike Lee needing to crowd-source and also give $2 million of his $3 million salary to help cover costs. In spite of the hurdles, X's wife, Betty Shabazz, was a consultant and after its release, Malcolm X received widespread acclaim making several "best film of 1990s" list. It also garnered an Academy Award nomination for Denzel Washington's portrayal of the African American hero.

Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter behind the commercially and critically successful Mark Zuckerberg biopic, The Social Network, faced a fair amount of detractors who were unimpressed with how he chose to dramatize the lives of those involved in the Facebook cosmos. Facebook co-founders Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz were not involved in the making of the film, and in a CNBC reaction piece, co-founder Eduardo Saverin said the "movie was clearly intended to be entertainment and not a fact-based documentary." Zuckerberg himself said the screenwriters made creative alterations he found "hurtful" and that he had "blocked the movie out." In an interview with New York Magazine, Sorkin would later say "I don't want my fidelity to be the truth. I want it to be storytelling."

In the artistic process of packaging one's life for cinema, the question remains: How much do writers/directors owe the viewers and how much do they owe the object of their attention? More times than not, biopic subjects live lives that tether on the brink of fantastical, and so veering towards histrionics seems unavoidable. Film producer Chris Sumpton, whose credits include Five Roads to Freedom: From Apartheid to the World Cup, and I, Pedophile, told VICE about the difficulties that emerge when creating a biopic, particularly when your main character is either living or deceased. "When they're alive, accuracy is in conflict with any agreed or perceived limitations related to showing them 'warts and all.'"

The 2015 Straight Outta Compton biopic on the life and music of gangster rap group N.W.A was met with praise after its release, but producers and group members were also brought to task for omitting key events that shaped the group's legacy. Most notably was the omission of the alleged domestic violence perpetrated by group member, Dr. Dre, against his ex-girlfriend, Michel'le and several other female artists he worked with. "There may be a contract if you're buying their story rights and a tacit understanding between them and the filmmakers that they will be depicted favorably," Sumpton added. In the aftermath of the controversy, Dr. Dre wrote a public letter apologizing to the women he hurt, and the film went on to become the highest grossing musical biopic in the US and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Younglai also talked about the director's responsibility in selecting actors that come close enough to resembling the physical appearance of the chosen subject. "Casting is very important, especially if it's a story about a person of color, and especially if race and skin tone are essential to the story and to whom the person is," she said. "I'm thinking specifically of the Nina Simone biopic which never should have been cast the way it was."

The ill-fated and titanic 2016 box-office bomb, Nina, which told the life story of the legendary jazz singer-songwriter is a classic example of a failed Hollywood biopic. It was blasted by fans, critics, and Simone's own family. Much of the film hinges on Simone's alcoholic descent and eventual redemptive ascent, culminating in a jubilant concert performance in Central Park. The casting choice was tragically unfit with many people offended by Zoe Saldana's use of blackface to darken her appearance so as to better resemble Simone. Nina Simone was a dark-skinned black woman, and this was an intrinsic part of her identity, which inspired much of her work and affected the ways she was perceived in a society that ordinarily favors people with lighter skin. After Saldana tweeted her support of the film, the official Twitter account for the Nina Simone estate replied, "Cool story but please take Nina's name out of your mouth. For the rest of your life." The film left many uninspired and unmoved, an insult to a life as exuberantly layered, and triumphant as Simone's.

Irrespective of any expected stumbling blocks, the Hollywood machine has continued to market biopics as glossy, money-making, blockbuster productions. In recent years, however, some of the best life stories have been told in documentary format, namely What Happened, Miss Simone? , Cobain: Montage of Heck , The Imposter, and Grizzly Man. These documentaries covered the real life experiences of people whose lives were anything but ordinary, and owe their success to simple storytelling and fact-based research. Documentaries are rarely ever looking to be anything other than a visual medium for an understood truth, and so their stories offer a veracity not corrupted by ill-fitting performances or a desperate desire for award circuit success. In their case, less is definitely more.

On the question of whether documentaries are a more feasible way of portraying a life story, Sumpton believes it comes down to a question of taste and financing. "All audiences want high-quality images and sound, but of course are accepting of lower quality, historical imagery as in the case of documentaries, which are also the cheaper way to go." The 2003 documentary, Tupac-Resurrection, was monumentally more critically successful than the recently released film. The success of Amy, Asif Kapadia's 2015 documentary on Amy Winehouse, is also a positive testament to the notion that the single camera focus of a documentary is the best vehicle to deliver as honest a retelling of a life as possible.

Robin Benger, the director, and producer behind the Gemini nominated, First Person Shooter, and Nelson Mandela: The Life and Times, is a self-proclaimed, "strictly documentary guy" and is wary of the self-serving leverage that can be achieved from biopics that feature political figures. "[Biopics] can be one of the most powerful forms of propaganda," he said. He went onto name political figures who have been subjects of biopics and the end result of the productions. "In cases like [President Robert] Mugabe and [Chairman] Mao, biography becomes hagiography and the emblematic fuel of personality cultism."

J.Edgar, Clint Eastwood's biopic on the career of FBI director, J.Edgar Hoover, and Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's take on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, are two recent films that seem to serve the purpose of elevating the already mythical status of their subjects to even higher ground. The screenwriters chose to portray these polarizing political figures as larger than life characters whose mistakes were few and far between, and whose aspirations were expansive, inclusive, and noble. Benger added, "Biography is a double-edged sword, and I fear it is more often used to inflate the powerful for political ends." Can you imagine what a Trump biopic is going to look like when candor will appear infinitely stranger than fiction, but still serve to propel Trump's maniacal and reckless rhetoric forward?

Since 2010, there have been over 225 biopics released worldwide and that's only including films with clickable Wikipedia links. They are deconstructed history as told by an industry built largely around suspension of disbelief as a premise. Telling someone's story sounds deceptively simple, but Hollywood needs to reckon with the fact that an exposed truth does not equate to an examined one. Anything less just becomes performative public relations.

Follow Tari Ngangura on Twitter.