Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why we like biopics and what that says.

Dreamworks has announced it's found a writer for its envisioning of a MLK biopic. This is sure to be a successful film but to what end are we really gaining anything out of it? MLK, like Jesus and Ghandi is a hard topic to write a two hour piece about without it seeming like it's going all over the place. There's just way too much to include. And if the writer doesn't include something or plays events differently, the whole thing could backfire--like pretty much every biopic made by Oliver Stone. Dreamworks, being a reasonable studio, as far as studios go probably won't let it backfire but still, I feel like they're walking a pretty tight rope. What's going to be the main narrative for a film like this? So many events, so many speeches. There have been biopic attempts at MLK in the past. Made for TV things that skip over huge chunks of history. Which brings us to the problem with these things.

Biopics are very selective about the stories they tell. Sometimes they come out like a book of cliff notes on someone's life, like the Johnny Cash one, touching on the major events and what leads up to them, giving the audience a decent idea of what the person was like but not a total one. Then sometimes they come out a little more artful, but more disjointed and wrapped up in conflicting accounts as "Capote" did. In a story like that, it's almost impossible to really tell what was going on.

Regardless we like biopics because they so artfully and eloquently spoon feed us the bits we need to know about key figures in our history. In the end it's supposed to be entertainment and as a student of history, I know the past isn't always going to be entertaining. People's lives are not always easy to make sense out of. Have you ever thought how you would construct a narrative of your life and make it worth watching?

What would you like to see in an MLK biopic? Everyone pretty much knows the story. Came from Atlanta to Montgomery, boycotted busses, stood up to Bull Connor in Birmingham, got thrown in Jail, made the "I have a dream" speech, then was shot in Memphis. A movie that goes along like that would be a huge failure to a man like King. I'd be interested in seeing something that plays more away from the black vs. white struggle and more about equal rights, equal pay and the war on poverty. This is where King's messages are still so painfully true.

I'd like to see something that goes beyond the South. The worst part of America's Civil Rights story is that the southern states get most of the blame for it. It's led to unjust stereotypes of southerners that persist to this day. A film that brings the Civil Rights story out of the south into the rest of the country is a film that would go much farther than stirring up the regular old wounds. One of the saddest times in MLK's life came when he went to Chicago to help lead the fight against poverty yet most people don't know this. The workers and activists there endured some of the worst beatings and acts of violence there than anywhere in the South. All in all, it's a new decade and sadly, King's dream is still unreached. It's time we examine his message in a broader context, which is how it was meant to be taken, and not in this simple black/white mentality.


  1. My idea on the Unicellular Review was simply adapt his, "Letter from Birmingham Jail". Do it in a way that told us who he was as a person, never telling us how he became that person, just show us who he was and a get a grasp for the character. Then, make the film about his imprisonment in Birmingham, how he got tossed into the slammer, and then showcase how every single idea, whether through flashbacks or something or the other, in his letter came to fruition.

  2. You should take the history of civil rights course that's offered at uab, if it's still offered.