Jesse Owens is just the beginning: Nine black leaders who deserve their own biopics

At long last, Hollywood is giving Olympic athlete Jesse Owens his due.
At long last, Hollywood is giving Olympic athlete Jesse Owens his due.
Image: AP Photo
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In the 1936 Olympic games in Nazi Germany, African-American track and field athlete Jesse Owens scored one of the most dramatic victories in sports history. His four gold medals served as a public rebuke to Hitler’s theories of white supremacy and eugenics—and to the racist ideologies of the Jim Crow era.

Yet while Owens’ feats are the stuff of sports legend, the movie Race, opening this week, is the first major biopic to be devoted to him. “It’s bizarre to me that the only film about Jesse Owens that exists prior to this one was made by [Nazi documentary filmmaker] Leni Riefenstahl,” Jason Sudeikis, who co-stars in the movie, mused. “But it is a prime example of the kind of stories that are out there for the taking if people are willing to (take a) risk.”

The unfortunate truth is that Hollywood has long viewed films about black people as a financial risk–hence the stunning lack of diversity on display at the Academy Awards. “There is a lot of apocryphal, not proven evidence that black films don’t sell overseas,” actor Don Cheadle said recently. As a result, there are numerous stories about black leaders that would seem tailor-made for the big screen—and have yet to get the green light. Here are just a handful of the cinematic lives long overdue for the Hollywood biopic treatment.

Harriet Tubman

If you want a story of courage, daring, and action-packed drama, it’s hard to compete with Harriet Tubman’s. Born a slave and subjected to vicious trauma and abuse, she escaped the South—and then went back an estimated 19 times to rescue 300 slaves, including her own family, as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. As if that’s not enough, she also helped abolitionist John Brown prepare his raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry; worked as a scout and spy for the Union during the Civil War; and led the Combahee River Raid, freeing over 700 slaves. The good news is it looks like the media industry may finally be waking up to Tubman’s heroism: Viola Davis is reportedly developing a Tubman biopic for HBO.

Ma Rainey

The first massively successful blues singer of the early 20th century, Ma Rainey’s outsized personality and scandalous lifestyle foreshadowed the paths of many a rock star to come. Her stage shows were sweeping displays of glitz and glamour fit for any music video; she toted around trunks of scenery and would sing “Stormy Sea Blues” complete with lightning effects and false winds. Her tumultuous personal life included a close but contentious relationship with her protégé Bessie Smith and an impressive sexual appetite—police famously raided her home to break up a lesbian orgy. Rainey is at the center of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and was included in the 2015 Bessie Smith HBO biopic starring Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique. But it’s time she got her own film.

Richard Wright

Author Richard Wright’s 1945 memoir Black Boy offers perfect Hollywood fodder. Stifled by both the vicious Jim Crow South and an anti-intellectual, religious family, Wright nonetheless pursued his passion for books, reading, and language. Despite a racist regime that prevented him from even checking books out of the library, he managed to educate himself, and then make his way north to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. Admittedly, Wright’s unsparing portrait of racism makes his triumph more bitter than sweet—which is perhaps why no one has yet stepped up to film it.

Satchel Paige

People have been calling for a Satchel Paige biopic for years—with good reason. Paige was one of the all-time great pitchers in baseball, as well as one of the sport’s all-time showmen. A pitcher in the Negro Leagues for 30 years, he was notorious for calling in his outfielders, then striking out three batters in a row. (“Just take the ball and throw it where you want to,” he said of his tactics. “Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.) Paige even wrote a delightful autobiography chock full of anecdotes ripe for Hollywoodization. And while a Paige movie is long past due, for a man who pitched three shutout innings in the Major League when he was 59 years old, it’s never too late to start.

Bobbye Hall

A bona fide drumming prodigy, Bobbye Hall was discovered by a Motown producer when she was only 11 years old. She quickly became one of the most in-demand percussionists of her day, playing with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Bob Dylan. She’s the bongo player on Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues, the conga player on Tom Waits’ song “Romeo Is Bleeding,” and the drummer on much of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Her story could be an unexpected window onto the music of a generation—picture a feel-good Hollywood flick with a guaranteed killer soundtrack.

Fred Hampton

The dynamic Black Panther leader was killed, almost certainly intentionally, in a police raid in 1969. He was only 21. Despite his youth, Fred Hampton led an eventful life marked by hope, struggle, and eventual betrayal. He negotiated a truce among Chicago’s street gangs, and, as deputy chairman of the Black Panther’s Illinois chapter, helped establish a number of free services for the city’s poor communities, including breakfast programs for children, health clinics, and day care centers. Hampton also created the Rainbow Coalition, a multi-racial alliance. Unfortunately, his success made him an FBI target. His bodyguard William O’Neal turned out to be a federal informant who provided the FBI with the floor plan to Hampton’s apartment.

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman, was one of the first people to fight back against the police at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. She continued her activism throughout her life, founding Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera. A story about her complicated gender identity, struggles with mental illness, and lifetime commitment to the gay rights movement would be a welcome corrective to last year’s Stonewall, in which Johnson, trans people and other people of color were pushed to the margins of history.

Clarence Thomas

Anita Hill is finally getting a television biopic later this year. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, accused of sexually harassing Hill when she worked as his aide, might seem to be an unlikely candidate for a Hollywood film. But he, too, would be a fascinating subject. Born terribly poor, Thomas struggled to obtain an education while facing constant racism. His inspiring successes and painful failures—most notably his alleged harassment of Hill—are perhaps too complicated for Hollywood to handle with grace. Still, it’s worth a try.

DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie

The Black Lives Matter movement is still in its early days, but it’s not to soon for Hollywood screenwriters to start taking notes on DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie. Both leaders were drawn to the movement in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting by a police officer in 2014. Their friendship and joint activist work on the ground and online has been a defining feature of a civil rights movement that is less resolutely heterosexual—and more willing to acknowledge the contributions of women—than its predecessor. The future film should have lots of material to work with: Mckesson has just entered the mayoral race in Baltimore, and both he and Elzie have signaled they won’t be leaving the BLM movement anytime soon.