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Media & Technology

Trusting the Biopic

Written by Morgan Barr

 

“Based on a true story” 

Trusting the Biopic 

The ‘based on a true story…’ line has become one of the most successful examples of storytelling in the past year, the biopic genre has utilised real-life and worldwide icons to reach masses of diverse audiences.  

 The current cinematic climate has become saturated in remakes and sequels, yet the biopic has become a strain of genre that has slowly worked its way into mainstream filmmaking. We, as an audience are seeing them more frequently than ever before, not just in cinemas but in our streaming services and our tv shows, and they are becoming strong contenders for high profile awards and critical acclaim. 

“The current cinematic climate has become saturated in remakes and sequels, yet the biopic has become a strain of genre that has slowly worked its way into mainstream filmmaking.”

This is not necessarily new, it takes a big budget for these films to be made; they’re often period pieces, and usually follow the lives of those who live larger than a small indie team can reproduce, but the sheer amount of life stories being traded to screen has improved the ability to replicate and sell. These films bring in money, and for both small and large companies this is good news, but what about the influence and messages these films make?  

An important thing to remember is that the biopic must be based on ‘real-life’ events, but the representation of those events can be saturated in falsehood. As an audience, we can choose to fact-check, but we can’t choose to change what’s on the screen.  

One of the most critically acclaimed biopics to come out of the past year would be the on-screen portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film featured excellent attention to detail, particularly in the recreation of the Live Aid concert, and audiences were immersed in this authentic wave of nostalgia. 

However. 

What came from this film was not just great casting and powerful visuals, but also brought forward a glossing over LGBTQIA+ issues that unfortunately disappointed fans. This film fell into a trap that many biopics must conquer; the struggle to truly represent. The subjects of these films must be interesting, but how much interest can you fit into 120 minutes or so? What gets cut? Or added? The answer to these questions lies in the audience’s ability to trust the text as an accurate paraphrase; a casual Google search at the end of the film should be inconsequential to the enjoyment of it, and as many of the past year’s examples have proven, it is not an easy feat. 

Two examples of negative and positive representation would be found within two major Oscar contenders of 2019; Green Book and BlacKkKlansman. The former caused controversy in its perceived white saviour narrative, and while the story of these two leads, based on a true story, was advertised as progressive, the result became an example of blind regression; reversed Driving Miss Daisy. BlacKkKlansman on the other hand, was received as a great example of Spike Lee’s attention to the Black rights movement, fitting in perfectly with the social movements of today despite its setting of the 1970s; a period film that was similarly modern. These two different biopics featuring similar narrative themes were in opposition for best picture at the Oscars; BlacKkKlansman won audiences, while Green Book the won the award. 

As an audience we then must place our trust in the biopic to represent the movements of the time, while similarly staying true to the realism of the subject it is based on. What sits well in the reception of Lee’s film for example, is the audience trusting that the representations of bad characters are unforgiving to the immorality they represent; that the actions we perceive wrong today must not be forgiven in the past as “a different time”.  

To then apply this to all biopics we must think clearly about how we represent the villains that we see. The biopic deals heavily in real-life characters and repercussions, and therefore the portrayals of these features are important to understanding how we, as a society, react to wrong doing.  

“The biopic deals heavily in real-life characters and repercussions, and therefore the portrayals of these features are important to understanding how we, as a society, react to wrong doing.”

Can a text that stylises immorality simply be enjoyed? Tonya Harding, Jordan Belfort, and even Richard Nixon have had their lives projected to millions of audiences, who at the end can maybe sympathise, or forgive. This is a power of the biopic that not many genres have, we can be placed to root for the very real villains of our society. Controversially a new Netflix original is soon to be released, a biopic of Ted Bundy told from the perspective of his unknowing girlfriend. This picture-perfect vision of Bundy is one that has divided audiences into believing the representation is an accurate recreation of his manipulation, versus believing it is glorifying the perception of Bundy as a terrible figure. Both sides of this feature compelling arguments, but what is apparent throughout the discussion is the power that this biopic has asserted over audiences, and therefore connoted the power of representation on screen.  

The biopic does not inherently glorify the bad and demonise the good, but the genre has the power to subvert perception, and in doing so can sway an entire audience in believing something heavily mediated. Understandably this has positive and negative effects on the audience and social climate; but like the trusting the biopic as a near historic text, a re-presentation, we must also trust that it is a mediated one and can therefore never truly present reality as it was.  

“The biopic does not inherently glorify the bad and demonise the good, but the genre has the power to subvert perception, and in doing so can sway an entire audience in believing something heavily mediated”

 

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