Black people have always had biographical stories worth telling, whether it be for the inspirational journey, the tragic sequence leading to an untimely life cut short or quite frankly for the drama and entertainment it can give us for a few short hours.
Of course, while some stories have made it to Hollywood and garnered plenty of awards and accolades, there are a few that might’ve been better off resting on the cutting room floor.
As a new wave if biopics arrive in the near future, including a Clive Davis-produced film on Whitney Houston and a movie for late king of comedy Bernie Mac being produced by John Legend, we decided to look back at both the hits and misses when it comes to Black biographical films.
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The key to making a great biopic relies on many factors being in place simultaneously to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Lead actors have to not only look the part but also give their all to portraying the prominent figure at hand. Shooting locations have to completely capture the era being displayed, whether we’re being taken back a few years or a few decades. In addition to the basics, small details like wardrobe, hairstyling, dialects, accents and most importantly the music have to be as accurate as possible or else we simply won’t believe it from an audience perspective.
While some directors and actors have gotten all those things right and more, others unfortunately missed the mark in ways that sadly made the mistakes more memorable than the film itself.
Grab some popcorn as we reminisce on 15 amazing biopics that told the stories of prominent figures in Black culture, and also 5 that were practically panned just in case future directors need an example of what not to do:
Based On A True Story: 15 Of The Best (And 5 Of The Worst) Black Biopics was originally published on blackamericaweb.com
1. WORST: ‘Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story’ (2009)
Given Ben Carson’s current controversial political views, and the fact that some details in the film might be based off fabrications, this one simply just didn’t age well.
2. BEST: ‘Fruitvale Station’ (2013)
Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler came together for an impressive performance that detailed the tragic New Year’s Day 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer. Sadly, stories like this are still happening today.
3. BEST: ‘Southside with You’ (2016)
Barack and Michelle Obama have embarked on one of the most inspiring, powerful love stories in history, and this film gets to the origin of where that Black love all began.
4. BEST: ‘The New Edition Story’ (2017)
BET had the Black community glued to our couches for three night straight for this amazing miniseries about the highs and lows of legendary R&B group New Edition.
5. WORST: ‘Wendy Williams: The Movie’ (2021)
While it might be interesting for some to see how Wendy Williams rose in the ranks of media, the stuff they decided to leave out of the film left it feeling like a half-truth to the real story of a controversial radio-gossip-diva-turned-talk-show-queen.
6. BEST: ‘Bird’ (1988)
From Forest Whitaker’s acting to Clint Eastwood’s directing, the life story of jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker was given much justice.
7. BEST: ‘Ali’ (2001)
Will Smith is one of the go-to guys in Hollywood for stories on film about prominent Black men, and his Oscar-nominated lead performance in Ali proves exactly why — the film itself financially failing at the box-office is another story.
8. BEST: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (2015)
Having the original surviving members of N.W.A. as consultants on the film really helped it to become an instant classic as far as hip-hop biopics are concerned.
9. WORST: ‘Nina’ (2016)
Casting, colorism and a catastrophic job in the prosthetics department made this one of the most critically panned biopics of all time, and did little to honor the rich legacy of Nina Simone.
10. BEST: ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)
Denzel Washington can do little to no wrong when it comes to biopics, and his performance in Malcolm X was absolutely career-defining.
11. BEST: ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ (1972)
Soul legend Diana Ross playing another soul legend, Billie Holiday, made for an extremely meta situation that ultimately ended up being a perfect fit from all perspectives.
12. BEST: ‘Selma’ (2015)
Martin Luther King Jr. did so much for the Black community that his life has been told through a handful of separate biopics over the years. Selma is by far the standout for sure.
13. WORST: ‘Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story’ (2004)
Words can’t describe how off-putting this film was from multiple levels. The casting of Flex Alexander as the King Of Pop alone was a travesty.
14. BEST: ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)
Hidden Figures did a great job at honoring three pioneering Black women who many hadn’t heard of prior to the film’s release, which is something a truly great biopic should accomplish to some degree.
15. BEST: ‘The Hurricane’ (1999)
Denzel was at it again with yet another polarizing performance, this time garnering him a Golden Globe win for Best Actor. The accompanying soundtrack was pretty amazing as well.
16. BEST: ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ (1993)
When discussing biopics, Angela Bassett’s groundbreaking portrayal of Tina Turner will forever be a starting point for the conversation. We still can’t believe she didn’t take home the “Best Actress” Oscar!
17. WORST: ‘Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B’ (2014)
Lifetime knew they were wrong for promoting this against the wishes of Aaliyah’s estate, especially given the fact they couldn’t even include any of her hit songs. From the horrible romanticizing of her illegal relationship with R. Kelly to the criminally-inaccurate representation of Timbaland and Missy Elliott, Baby Girl deserved so much better overall.
18. BEST: ‘Get On Up’ (2014)
The recent loss of Chadwick Boseman puts his honorific portrayal of James Brown into an even higher place of praise. We’re just glad he was here long enough to live on through this role forever just like the Godfather Of Soul he plays.
19. BEST: ‘Bessie’ (2015)
Queen Latifah artistically stripped down, in some scenes literally, to give her best acting performance in recent years to honor blues icon Bessie Smith. The costumes, wigs and dialect were all on point to truly capture the booming Jazz Age.
20. BEST: ‘Ray’ (2004)
Jamie Foxx proved he was more than just a funnyman with this Oscar-winning performance as blind blues legend Ray Charles. Almost 20 years later and the biopic still stands as a true classic worthy of all the accolades it received.