I saw Selma recently – it’s gripping and powerful – and it got me to wondering about biopics and films of historical events…why make a dramatised film rather than a documentary?
Selma is a good example of where it works. It’s been a long time since I was a student of American history, but I think the film did well to make sense of a complex moment in history. The story itself is powerful enough to need no fictional embellishment, but David Oyelowu’s excellent nuanced performance as the Rev Dr King – a man whose private life was often sacrificed for the greater good – added to the drama.So too Mr Turner, which for me was so sensual and evoked the period so well I could almost smell it. I think it worked better than most biopics because it focused on a specific period in his life and explored the relationships and motivations of someone who’d already achieved success.
Similar to Selma in a way – we join the Civil Rights Movement in its last big stand, really. We’re a decade after Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus and the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is already on the statute books and King has easy access to the White House. Try and cram all that into a two-hour biopic.I’d much rather a dramatised film focused in more depth on one aspect of someone’s life than tried to fit its complexity into some neat narrative arc. Documentaries are usually a better medium for exploring someone’s rise, fall, rise etc. I saw a couple of crackers last year too: I Am Divine, about John Waters’ larger-than-life friend and muse, and Life Itself, which was about film critic Roger Ebert but somehow managed to be the most heart-breaking and life-affirming film I saw last year.
Our upcoming series of Marlene Dietrich/Josef Von Sternberg collaborations at the Showroom doesn’t include any biopics, but is an interesting trio that taken together explores the career path of a screen icon. Come along and find out more!