The notion of the biopic, a cinematic presentation that deals with the lives of real people, remains a problematic one. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s not always quite as entertaining or compelling.
For example, anyone who witnessed Michael Mann’s Ali and knew anything about heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali’s history and involvement with the Nation of Islam was aghast at the implication Ali could have prevented the assassination of Malcolm X. Whenever filmmakers decide to play fast and loose with facts, or spruce up past events and alter personalities, they’re changing the historical record and distorting reality, no matter how noble their intentions.
That’s why there’s plenty of buzz this week about a pair of announcements made regarding upcoming biopics. On Monday, the Internet lit up when a story from the London Telegraph surfaced that Martin Scorsese was considering Jamie Foxx among candidates to play Frank Sinatra in his upcoming film about the singing and acting legend.
While no comments came from the legendary director, some of his surrogates, in defending a possible Foxx selection, commented that Scorsese “truly believed in color-blind casting.” They added that Foxx and Sinatra shared enough commonalities in terms of background and achieving fame in spite of considerable obstacles to make Foxx taking the role a workable portrayal.
Though I also strongly feel race should never be an impediment to anyone’s opportunities, there’s a vast difference between a fictional part that doesn’t require anything except acting skill and a role where life experience is a key part of the portrayal.
Sinatra’s evolution into one of the top stars in American history is directly connected to his background, and pretending that his being white and Italian wasn’t part of that equation is beyond ludicrous.
No African-American would have been able to get the kind of film roles Sinatra landed during the 1950s, or lead that type of dashing public life. That’s no slight on a magnificent performer who helped integrate Las Vegas’ casinos, loved the music of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, and was generally far from racist in his dealings and actions.
The treatment of Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat “King” Cole and Billy Eckstine — all Sinatra contemporaries during that same era — is ample proof of the restrictions and limits on African-American stars of the period. It’s a perversion of cultural reality to ask people to overlook that in a film chronicling the life of someone as important as Sinatra.
Scorsese is far too savvy a director to let something he’s dreamed of doing for a lifetime get sabotaged in a whirlwind of distraction. And I doubt Jamie Foxx, an amazing and talented actor and singer, would put himself in the crosshairs of something that controversial.
There’s also plenty of discussion about the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. movie that will be made by Dreamworks and Steven Spielberg. According to Variety, this is the first film authorized by King’s estate. Dreamworks and Spielberg get the rights to all his speeches, books, papers and famous works.
“It is our hope that the creative power of film and the impact of Dr. King’s life can combine to present a story of incredible power that we can all be proud of,” Spielberg told Variety.
My hope is that they don’t feel the need to insert fictional people or manufacture controversy. King’s life and sacrifice is too important to be turned into big-screen soap opera, and it certainly doesn’t need any embellishment.
From his battles with the religious establishment in the black community to his challenges to presidential power and state-sanctioned segregation, King's example is one of strength, dignity and confrontation. But one service they could provide is to highlight the amount of FBI surveillance on King and the entire Civil Rights community during that time.
If the eventual films celebrating Frank Sinatra and Martin Luther King Jr. devote as much attention to accuracy as they do elaborate production and blockbuster cinematography, they will have long-lasting value that far outstrips whatever commercial clout they enjoy. But if Scorsese and Spielberg succumb to the notion that it’s necessary to spice up their stories and add gimmicks and tricks to ensure big opening weekends, they will do extensive damage to the memory and legacy of the people they are supposedly celebrating and commemorating.