Biopics are an excellent way of bringing black legends to life for a new generation. From legendary leaders to athletes and singers, here is our list of the top 13 black biopics For The Culture on the big screen.
*There is a lot of Chadwick Boseman on this list but as much as we want Wakanda to be a real place an T’Challa to be a real person there is unfortuntaly no Black Panther on the list*
In 1947, Jackie Robinson rewrote the future of proffesional baseball and society at large when he broke the color barrier to become the first African-American MLB player in modern history. Both moving and inspirational, the film 42 follows Robinson’s trials and tribulations moving from the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson expertly capturing his dignity and quiet detrmination as he struggles to rise above the blatant racism and disrespect he faces at every turn. Fun Fact: 42 broke the record for highest box office opening weekend by a baseball movie.
An engrossing look into the Greatset Of All-Time’s life from 1964 to 1974, it covers Ali the boxer: from becoming champion to regaining the championship. And also religion and politics: Cassius Clay becomes a Black Muslim and changing his name to Muhammid Ali, becoming friends with Malcolm X, perhaps being Elijah Muhammad’s pawn, and refusing induction into the US military and facing a prison sentence. Considered by many to be Will Smith’s best acting performance, it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2002.
The true story of Frank Lucas who went from the quiet driver to one of the inner city’s leading black crime bosses to building his own empire and create his own version of the American Dream filed by his drug Blue Magic. It’s a gritty look at the New York of the 1970’s and the cat and mouse game between the law and the lawless. Superbly played (as usual) by Denzel Washington, Lucas is the villain but is so smart, and dynamic, and charming you can’t help but root for him.
Not a celebrity, not an actor or a rapper or historical leader but Oscar Grant is an important person in American history none the less. Fruitvale Station is the story of the last day of Grant’s life but manages to encompass his entire life as well. A young black man struggling with responsiblitlties and trying to change his life for his family. He was gunned dwon at the Fruitvale BART station by a white cop tragically and unjustifiably. Socially his death has been a catalyst for change and a precursosr to the Black Lives Matter Movement. For The Culture this is the film that brought us director Ryan Coogler and started his team-ups with actor Michael B. Jordan which could be our Martin Scorsesse/Leornado DiCapro dynamic duo.
Get On Up
The Godfather of Soul finally got his big screen due in the 2014 flim Get On Up. The film covers a long stretch of his life jumping from the 90’s to the 80’s back to the 60’s then the 30’s covering his rise from extreme poverty, to imprisonment to his big break in music and becoming one of the most influential musicians ever. It shows his highs and his lows and delivers an epic soundtrack the entire way though. Again Chadwick Boseman plays the title role and captures Brown’s swagger and charisma perfectly.
The Jacksons: An American Dream
While this is a major motion picture focused list we had to include this TV movie. Why? Because it’s the Jacksons! And this 4-part mini-series event really had it all. Spanning their humble beginnings in Indiana, the patriarch Joe Jackson’s extreme discipline and pushing of the boys, all the way to Michael Jackson’s solo super stardom and beyond. This required a huge cast to cover the decades that unfold and everyone held their own. It’s just too epic with so many iconic moments and incredible music not to be mentioned here. It’s a classic and a real must-see.
Lady Sings The Blues
The story of the troubled life and career of the legendary Jazz singer, Billie Holiday. Fellow music legend in her own right Diana Ross plays Holiday. Beginning with Holiday’s traumatic youth, the film depicts her early attempts at a singing career and her eventual rise to stardom, as well as her difficult relationship with her boyfriend/manager and her severe drug addiction, which constantly threatend to end both her career and her life.
One of the greatest black autobiographies (written by Alex Haley) turned into a biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader. From his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his spiritual awakening and religious coversion, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam. Some of director Spike Lee’s best work went into this sprawling story. Intillgent, charismatic, conflicted and constantly evolving, Dnezel Washington captured this complex man and his complex life masterfully. One of several Oscars stolen from Denzel.
The story of Thurgood Marshall, the crusading lawyer who would become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, as he battles through one of his career-defining cases. Director Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall is based on an early trial in his career and follows the young lawyer (played by Chadwick Boseman) to conservative Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) charged with sexual assault and attempted murder of his white socialite employer. It shows how society and the judicial system were stacked against African-American defendants and lawyers. The high profile case served as the catalyst for Marshall’s creation of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The life and times of one of the greatest MC’s of all-time Biggie Smalls aka The Notorious B.I.G. aka Christopher Wallace, who came straight out of Brooklyn to take the world of rap by storm. The film doesn’t shy away from anything covering is drug dealing beginnings to his tumultuous relationships with the women in his life (Faith Evans and Lil Kim), his complicated relationship with 2 Pac and his tragic murder in LA in 1997. Which even though you know it’s about to happen packs an emotional punch not many film scenes can match. An essential hip-hop film.
A great portrait of a great musician’s career achievements and personal shortcomings spanning 30 years of Charles’ life. What makes the film truly special is Jamie Foxx’s stunning performance as Ray Charles. A role he was seemingly born to play. And play it he does. Doing the singing himself and pulling off the nearly impossible, radiating something approaching the legendary charisma of the artist he was portraying. He did such a great job he earned the 2004 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Straight Outta Compton
The new gold standard musical black biopic. The story of NWA the world’s most dangerous group is one of the most gripping looks behind the curtain of the music biz as there’s ever been. Following the members of the crew from their humble/troubled beginnings in Compton to their mega success and backlash from white America to the infighting /breakup and beyond. So fascinating and well done it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The movie was directed by F. Gary Grey who directed multiple Ice Cube videos back in the day. And O’Shea Jackson Jr. playing his father (Ice Cube) is one of the coolest hip-hop moments of all-time and is hip-hop and The Culture coming full circle.
What’s Love Got To Do With It
Based on the autobiography of Tina Turner, ”I, Tina”. What’s Love chronicles the career of the rock singer from the time she met musician-songwriter Ike Turner as a teenager to the launch of her tremendously successful solo career in the early 1980s. The film features faithful reenactments of stage performances by Ike and Tina Turner and gritty and sometimes hard watch reeanactments of verbal and physical fights between the two that eventually forced Tina to face her fears and leave and find the courage to believe in herself. Angela Bassett as Tina and Laurence Fishburn as Ike Turner stole the show and they were both nominated for Oscars for Best Actress and Actor in a Leading Role respectively.
Written by @TalentedMrFord