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November 15, 2019

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Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington walks the red carpet as he arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of the film "The Manchurian Candidate" in Beverly Hills, California July 22, 2004. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

What makes a good biopic? Here are 8 movies that mastered the form

A biographical film is delicate territory. The stakes are high for retelling the story of the most beloved — or loathed — people in history. This year, we’ve seen many of the lives of the world’s most infamous musicians, artists, politicians and even serial killers adapted for the big screen. From J.R.R. Tolkien, Elton John, Ted Bundy, and Fred Rogers — all subjects for 2019 films — it’s clear that biopics can either be total hits or far-off misses.

Is Ted Bundy, played by Zac Efron, glorified in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”? How accurate is the highly stylized “Rocketman”? Why did “Bohemian Rhapsody” sidestep Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s queer relationships? When it comes to recent biographical films, these are just a few questions moviegoers and critics have regarding the depictions of these iconic figures.

“Very few films have been able to toe that line between fact and creative liberties,” journalist and film critic Tari Ngangura told the PBS NewsHour. “You need access to information, some of which might be denied by the subject or their estate. And fans have a vested interest in seeing films done well and factually,” she added.

Film and television writer Scott Tobias believes a successful biopic should focus on a narrow period of time, such as the recording of an album or a particular moment in history.

“I think it’s important to try to be innovative. If you can avoid the sort of birth-to-death conventions, and really try to find some creative way to access a person and access a person’s life, I think that leads to a good biopic,” Tobias said.

The NewsHour asked Ngangura and Tobias to tell us about their favorite biopics that have mastered the form. Here are eight of their all-time favorites that remain relevant today.

1. “Malcolm X” (1992)

Denzel Washington, who plays Malcolm X, received an Academy Award nomination in 1993 for Best Actor, as well as a Golden Globe nomination that same year. Years earlier, Washington had played the influential black nationalist in the off-Broadway play “When the Chickens Come Home to Roost.”

“The ‘Malcolm X’ film by Spike Lee is one of the most well-done biographies that pleased the subject’s family members, supporters and critics. It’s one that aged very well, painting a picture of not only one great man, but an entire movement and a politically violent era,” Ngangura said.

2. “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993)

For those less familiar, Glenn Gould was a Toronto-based pianist and by all definitions a prodigy, obsessed with Johann Sebastian Bach. In fact, Gould would nearly morph into his idol through his musical adaptations. He’s described by The New Yorker as “one of the few performers who can stand alongside the great composers as an artistic equal.” In this film, events appear in chronological order– a rule of a good biopic to many critics.

“It just takes 32 different approaches to understanding his work from a lot of different formats. There’s documentaries, there’s interviews, there’s reenactments of episodes from his wife, there’s performance footage, and there’s animated stuff,” Tobias said.

3. “Capote” (2005)

“Capote” by Bennett Miller was sensational for three reasons: stunning cinematography, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the lead actor, and a brilliant script from Dan Futterman.

“Here is a film that could have been easily sensationalized, offering more flash than substance, because of the infamy surrounding its real-life inspiration. But it avoided those potholes and delivered an understated and disquieting film that was both visually stark, but also very lush,” Ngangura said.

4.Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Set in the 1880s, the film tells the story of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan who co-wrote the famous opera “The Mikado.”

“It’s at this very small period of time, but it’s also kind of deals with a very fraught time in [the duo’s]collaboration. Then, it just digs into the period, digs into their art and into who they were as people and as artists. It’s just so particular. That one I really love. I’ve been kind of annoyed that “Topsy-Turvy” hasn’t got as much attention as it deserves. In a great movie year, it’s one of the best,” Tobias said.

5. Bessie (2015)

“Queen Latifah in ‘Bessie’ is another good retelling of a layered and tempestuous life, and a great example of good casting, as opposed to the horror that was the Nina Simone film, starring Zoe Saldana,” Ngangura said. “The latter wasn’t only terribly cast, it was terribly written, with no discernible plot and no support from either the singer’s estate or her very loyal fanbase.”

6. The Social Network (2010)

“What I thought was really interesting, and almost suddenly incriminating about the film, is how much Mark Zuckerberg the person — or at least the person as depicted in this film — is sort of embedded into Facebook in all of its insidiousness,” Tobias said. “All of his sociopathy is suddenly part of the network. I like the implication about the film, and I liked how tough it is on him as well,” he added. “I think there can be a tendency when you deal with people who are innovators or geniuses, to lionize them, and it certainly does not do that.”

7. Lincoln (2012)

“[Abraham] Lincoln is the type of figure who is lionized, and who we can talk about in very broad terms,” Tobias said. “What I liked about the film was how it showed him as a gifted politician, and not only a gifted politician, but somebody who is willing to engage in a lot of horse trading and some of the ugly type of exchanges that go on in a democracy. I think it’s always a good idea when you have a figure that revered to show them to be human and flawed, and I thought that ‘Lincoln’ did a particularly good job at that.”

8. American Gangster (2007)

Known drug trafficker Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, was able to smuggle heroin into the United States during the Vietnam War. Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe, is a police officer dead set on bringing Lucas to his knees.

“American Gangster had a great ensemble cast working alongside Denzel Washington, and although it was accused of straying very far from the truth, it was an entertaining film where good versus bad wasn’t quite so clear,” Ngangura said.

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