Monday, February 29, 2016

The 20 Greatest Black Biopics

We have arrived at February 29th, the mythical 366th day that officially marks 2016 as a leap year. It's also the end of Black History Month. To mark the occasion, I figured we might as well go out with a bang. To do that, we're going to get into what I think are the best black biopics ever made. It's also apropos since Race the biopic about legendary Olympian Jesse Owens is currently in theaters. I've not seen it, so it does not appear here. There are at least three more black biopics that have garnered some buzz lately: The Birth of a Nation about Nat Turner, Miles Ahead about Miles Davis, and All Eyez on Me about Tupac Shakur. I'll not say much more other than don't look for The Butler. It's a fairy-tale, not a biopic. Cecil Gaines, the character played by Forest Whitaker is not a real person. He is the highly fictionalized realization of a man named Eugene Allen. Moving on to the list...

Honorable Mentions (chronologically): The Temptations (1998), Something the Lord Made (2004), Cadillac Records (2008), The Express (2008), Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story (2013), Get on Up (2014)

20. Why Do Fools Fall in Love
Subject: Frankie Lymon
Starring Larenz Tate
In 1956, the song "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" by Frankie Lymon and the teenagers became one of the biggest songs in rock and roll history to that point. Like a lot of young men in his position, Frankie enjoyed the perks of stardom. Two of them got him into a whole bunch of trouble - women and drugs. This movie actually begins after his death as three women have come forward claiming to be Mrs. Lymon in the battle for his estate. From there, much of the story is told in flashbacks detailing the rise of fall of Mr. Lymon.

19. 42
Subject: Jackie Robinson
Starring Chadwick Boseman
Any baseball fan worth his cap, and many people who have no use for baseball, will tell you that Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. This film details the road to get to that point and beyond, chronicling his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. You can dock it a few points for watering down the flat out abusive bigotry he had to deal with through 1947, perhaps to keep a PG-13 rating, but it is still a solid film giving life to a story many of us grew up hearing. Jackie Robinson told the same story when he starred as himself in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story. Chadwick Boseman handles lead duties on this one, and does so effectively. He would also go on to play music legend James Brown in Get on Up.

18. The Jacksons: An American Dream
Subject: The Jackson Five
Starring Wylie Draper (Michael), Colin Steele (Jermaine), Terrence Howard (Jackie), Angel Vargas (Tito), Marcus Maurice (Marlon), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Joseph), Angela Bassett (Katherine)
I'll not waste time explaining who The Jackson Five were. I'll just say that this TV movie, originally aired as a miniseries, is largely the story of the relationship between patriarch Joseph Jackson and his boys, particularly Michael. We cover things from their early years in Gary, Indiana before they made it big through Michael's legendary performance of "Billie Jean" on the TV special Motown 25. It's at times campy and very much a kitchen-sink drama, as well as a musical biopic, but it's loads of fun. The true star is Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as an often crazed, always overbearing Papa Jackson, but it also includes our first sighting on this list of Angela Bassett.

17. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
Subject: Dorothy Dandridge
Starring Halle Berry
Since the Oscars were just last night, and all the talk of diversity in Hollywood that went on over the last month and change, this is the perfect time to be talking about Dorothy Dandridge. She was the first African-American the Academy ever nominated for Best Actress thanks to her winning turn in the musical Carmen Jones. The irony of it all is that she is played by Halle Berry, the first African American to win that same award. For me, this is a far better performance than the one for which she won.

16. The Hurricane
Subject: Rubin Carter
Starring: Denzel Washington
Our first Denzel Washington entry sees him playing a middleweight boxing contender who's career is derailed after he is convicted of a triple homicide. He maintains his innocence and nearly 20 years down the line, three Canadian activists make a concerted effort to get the conviction overturned. It is a wonderfully told story detailing much of Carter's life, and eventually becomes an engrossing court-room drama.

15. Notorious
Subject: The Notorious B.I.G.
Starring Jamal Woolard
Hip-Hop's first biopic is about the rapper simply known as Biggie. The film spends a little time looking at his childhood, but mostly deals with the period starting a year or so before he came to the attention of mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs until Biggie's murder in 1997. Jamal Woolard does a dead-on Biggie that is not just an impersonation, it captures the spirit of our subject. He is scheduled to reprise the role in the upcoming Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me. By the way, mark another appearance for Angela Bassett who portrays Biggie's mother Voletta.

14. The Josephine Baker Story
Subject: Josephine Baker
Starring Lynn Whitfield
Josephine Baker is regarded by many people as the first international superstar of African-American descent. While starting off in the United States during the 1920s, she found herself in Paris where she became a huge success. This film is a sweeping epic that covers a huge chunk of her life. Lynn Whitfield gives the performance of a lifetime and was rewarded with an Emmy for her efforts (the movie was made by HBO). She gives everything to the role and us viewers are rewarded for it.

13. Basquiat
Subject: Jean-Michel Basquiat
Starring Jeffrey Wright
Coming up from his roots as a street artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat becoming the hottest thing in the art world in the early 1980s. He was a troubled young man of immense talent who would come to be close friends with none other than Andy Warhol. This flick tells the tale of a guy struggling with the success he attains. Jeffrey Wright disappears in the role making us forget we've ever seen him before. He would also do the same as legendary blues man Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records.

12. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Subject: Nelson Mandela
Starring Idris Elba
This sprawling biopic covers the life and times of Nelson Mandela from his days as a lawyer in the 1940s through his inauguration as the first black president of South Africa in 1994. It's an underrated gem that serves as history lesson and intense character study. Occasionally hard to watch, but harder to tear your eyes from, we get a real sense of the man's evolution into the legendary figure we've come to know him to be. Elba's work stays true to the man and serves to draw us deep into the film.

11. Talk to Me
Subject: Petey Greene
Starring Don Cheadle
Before seeing this film, I had never heard of Washington, D.C. radio DJ Petey Greene. He was a man who spoke his mind, consequences be damned. Often, what he had to say was quite hilarious. The situations he got himself into were also crazy making this, hands down, the funniest movie on the list. However, there are still plenty of powerful moments packed into this one. Don Cheadle, his first of two appearances on this list, absolutely kills it. He is joined by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Sheen, and Taraji P. Henson, who are all excellent.

10. Straight Outta Compton
Subject: N.W.A.
Starring Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube), Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Neil Brown Jr. (DJ Yella), Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller)
Once upon a time a rap group came straight outta Compton and took the world by storm. This is their story. It follows the group from a short time before their actual formation, 1986, through the death of de facto leader Eazy-E in 1995. It shows us where the angst and downright anger that led to some of their biggest songs comes from as well as giving us a rise and fall story. At its core, it's a story of brotherhood and the betrayal of that brotherhood - hip-hop style.

9. Selma
Subject: Martin Luther King Jr.
Starring David Oyelowo
Unlike most biopics, including every other movie on this list, Selma is largely focused on a singular event. As such, it only covers a small portion of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. This helps star David Oyelowo give us a deeper, more grounded picture of a man who's legend has him bordering on becoming a mythical figure. The result is a film that is equal parts gut-wrenching and triumphant. This earned it an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

8. The Pursuit of Happyness
Subject: Chris Gardner
Starring Will Smith
Among all these movies about civil rights leaders and entertainers, there's this film about a stockbroker. What makes his story worthy of telling is the way in which he got his job. Included in that is a touching story about a father and his son going through all sorts of hell in pursuit of...well...happyness. I know that's not how it's spelled. See the movie and you'll understand. You will also understand that Will smith is phenomenal in the lead role, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in the process. We'll hear a little more from him just a bit.

7. Ray
Subject: Ray Charles
Starring Jamie Foxx
"The drunk soul of a blind junkie." Ray Charles uses these words to describe his woman. He may as well have been talking about the movie itself. It covers much of the music legend's life including all sorts of ups and downs. Jamie Foxx gives a performance for the ages and won an Oscar for Best Actor for his effort. However, it's not just a film propped up by an actor, it's a film that tells a great story.

6. Ali
Subject: Muhammad Ali
Starring Will Smith
The story of the most famous boxer in the history of the sport gets the Michael Mann treatment. The director injects it with his style and gets a fantastic turn from Will Smith to create a film that was criminally underrated at the time of release. The one aspect of it that wasn't underrated was Smith who earned his first Best Actor nomination for the role. The film covers a ten year period in Ali's life culminating in his victory over George Foreman. Ali himself covered a similar period in his own life when he starred as himself in 1977's The Greatest. It wasn't bad, but Mann made the far superior film. For Will Smith, it's his second appearance on the list. It's also the second for Jamie Foxx who shows up here as Bundini Brown, one of Ali's cornermen.

5. Lady Sings the Blues
Subject: Billie Holiday
Starring Diana Ross
Way back in 1972, no one knew if renowned songstress Diana Ross could do justice to the role of legendary blues singer Billie Holiday. It turns out she could do much more than that and earned her a nomination for Best Actress. It's no wonder given the roller coaster of a life that Holiday led. The film mostly covers the last decade of her life, a time frame that sees her go through more than most people can imagine.

4. Hotel Rwanda
Subject: Paul Rusesabagina
Starring Don Cheadle
Like Selma, Hotel Rwanda is focused on a singular event. In this case, we're talking about the Rwandan genocide that took place in 1994. Paul Rusesabagina runs a hotel there and suddenly finds himself surrounded by people who have taken refuge there. He must also be a negotiator as he tries to get UN forces to get people out of an extremely dangerous situation. Cheadle, his second appearance on this list, was nominated for Best Actor for his work, here.

3. What's Love Got to Do With It
Subject: Tina Turner
Starring Angela Bassett
We follow a young girl from Nutbush, Tennessee on her road to becoming a music legend. Front and center is Tina Turner's volatile, abusive relationship with the man who plucked her from obscurity, ex-husband Ike Turner. The performance by Angela Bassett, in yet another entry on the list, is nothing short of mesmerizing, channeling every aspect of the singer's persona. By the way, Bassett has her own cottage industry of biopics going. Aside from several entries here, she's also played the lead in The Rosa Parks Story, co-lead as Coretta Scott King in Betty and Coretta, and still has one more appearance on this list. As good as she is here, she couldn't do it alone, though. She's helped mightily by a downright scary turn from Laurence Fishburne. Both were rewarded with Oscar nominations.

2. 12 Years a Slave
Subject: Solomon Northrup
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor
This is an amazing tale of a free man, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery where he would stay for the titular twelve years. In his second appearance on the list, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives us a man who somehow maintains his dignity while suffering an institution meant to strip him of that very thing. He may have been upstaged by two other entities, Lupita Nyong'o and Steve McQueen. Nyong'o won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her heart-wrenching performance. McQueen takes a boat load of moving parts, crafts them into an unstoppable machine, and keeps his unflinching camera on it all.

1. Malcolm X
Subject: Malcolm X
Starring Denzel Washington
This may not be a surprise after the love letter I wrote to this film a couple weeks ago. That said, I think it earns its spot by telling its story in spectacular fashion. Much of it is taken directly from "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and all of it is infused with director Spike Lee's particular brand of flare. Of course, getting an iconic performance from Denzel Washington helps things tremendously. He nails the essence of Malcolm X at every point along the way. Finally, there is no better way to close out this list than by mentioning that the always excellent Angela Bassett shows up yet again. This time, she plays Malcolm's wife Betty Shabazz.


  1. There's no question that Malcolm X is among one of the best bio-pics ever made as I'm going to exclude that from my own list. Here are the films from your list that I think are among the best from what I've seen:

    1. 12 Years a Slave
    2. Basquiat
    3. The Hurricane
    4. Talk to Me
    5. Hotel Rwanda
    6. The Josephine Baker Story
    7. What's Love Got to Do With It
    8. Ray
    9. Ali
    10. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

    The Pursuit of Happyness I thought was alright while I had some issues with the Jacksons bio-pic as I found some anachronisms (if I notice it, it annoys me to death and I couldn't get over it) and dramatic liberties that I was bothered by. Why Do Fools Fall in Love I thought had some good moments as I was also bothered by some of its dramatic liberties. I do like the Temptations mini-series while I would put Something the Lord Made as a honorable mention as I think it's underrated.

    I'm just glad the one bio-pic you didn't mention is the one VH1 did on MC Hammer. Man, that was awful and I'm sure we both knew that there was no way that Hammer and 2Pac hung out considering that the latter had made a bunch of unreleased diss tracks on the former. I'm baffled that the guy who played Suge was Ahmed Johnson who I liked early on when he arrived in the WWE but all of the promise he had went down the drain due to injuries and becoming dangerous to everyone else in the ring.

    1. Good lawd, that Hammer movie was awful. There were also terrible ones about Whitney Houston, Gabby Douglas, and Jimi Hendrix. That last one is a rather strange film, too.

      Glad you have such high esteem for Basquiat. I've only just recently seen it for the first time and really enjoyed it. Something the Lord Made is very good. I went back and forth with it being on the list.

  2. I love Malcolm X, and Hotel Rwanda was affecting. Straight Outta Compton was an enjoyable history lesson. We disagree on Selma- I don't think it was Best Picture worthy, and for me not as gripping as it needed to be.

    There are a few here I'm going to check out, Ray and What's Love Got to Do With It

    1. Always glad to see more love for Malcolm X. Obviously, I highly recommend Ray and What's Love. Can't wait to hear what you think.

  3. Malcolm X! Seering film, and Washington was ON FIRE! Some great films here, and also quite a few I haven't seen.

    I really want to see Basquiat.

    It's funny to think that, when I saw The Pursuit of Happyness, I was drawn to young Jayden Smith's tender and authentic performance and actually thought he'd grow into a commanding young actor.


    1. Seering. That's a great description.

      Basquiat is streaming on Netflix. At least it was as of yesterday. Let's hope it didn't disappear with February.

      I actually liked him in the remake of The Karate Kid so I might be willing to hold out a little more hope for him. Not much, mind you.

  4. WOW, thanks for all the recommendations! I've only seen Mandela, 12 Years of Slave, Ray, Hotel Rwanda and Selma and I love all of them. I should check out Straight Outta Compton soon, I thought that joke about Paul Giamatti at the Oscars by Chris Rock was funny! And he's right, he's indeed a versatile actor!

    1. Yes, check out Straight Outta Compton. I should have a full review of it posting fairly soon, btw. And Giamatti has been the man for years.

  5. I've only seen 3 of the movies on this list. Major movie buff fail on my part. ;-) As you know, I am a big fan of your #1 pick, both the film and the autobiography upon which it was based.

    1. I hope this inspires you to see a few of them. Obviously, I recommend starting at the top and working your way down.

    2. So 12 Years a Slave it is. :-) Checking to see if it's on my Netflix queue as we speak.

    3. It deserves to be seen, just know that it's a tough watch.

  6. Much as I think you're awesome, i'd have strangeld you if you'd had a different number one. Solid list and neatly argued.

    1. Oh, there was never a different number one for me. Thanks.

  7. Your second choice would have been mine too. It's one of my favourite directed films. Seemingly so effortless.

    1. Absolutely. McQueen is an amazing talent.