Culture Vulture

Enough of white male heroes: Biopics should tell more diverse stories

Biopics like The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, tend to stick to a tried-and-tested template. For starters, the subjects are overwhelmingly male and white. -- PHOTO: EPA 
Biopics like The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, tend to stick to a tried-and-tested template. For starters, the subjects are overwhelmingly male and white. -- PHOTO: EPA 

Biopics tend to follow a tried- and-tested template. These films should tell more diverse stories

You can always tell that awards season is around the corner when biopics begin to flower. And the recent crop has been a particularly bountiful one.

They include Mike Leigh's Mr Turner, about English Romantic painter JMW Turner; Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, about the iconic French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent; James Marsh's The Theory Of Everything, about English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking; Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, about pioneering British code-breaker Alan Turing; Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, about American war survivor Louis Zamperini; and Tim Burton's Big Eyes, about American artist Margaret Keane.

It is easy to see the allure of the biopic for film-makers as they wrestle with the challenge of conveying a colourful subject's life in under three hours and actors have to evoke a known personality with sensitivity. Done well, such movies are an easy magnet for nominations and awards.

The Imitation Game is up for eight Oscars and The Theory Of Everything is up for five. Benedict Cumberbatch's Turing and Eddie Redmayne's Hawking have both been recognised with nods in the Best Actor category.

But while these movies can be absorbing in their own right, as a whole, they tend to stick to a tried-and-tested template.

For starters, the subjects are overwhelmingly male and white. They can be long dead, more recently deceased or still alive, active in science or arts, charming or tortured or arrogant, but they are united by gender and ethnicity.

To be sure, the list above is far from exhaustive and one can raise examples that point to a greater diversity than seems at first glance.

There is Ava DuVernay's Selma which, while not strictly speaking, a biopic, focuses on African- American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Apart from Big Eyes, Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild also features a female protagonist, in this case, American writer Cheryl Strayed undertaking a physical and spiritual journey on a hiking trail.

Even then, there seems to be a definite bias when it comes to committing a person's life to celluloid.

Part of it stems from the way the biopic is often a movie about a person of accomplishment, be it in scientific reckoning, artistic endeavours or the political arena. And the cards are already stacked in the real world where men dominate, from women's fashion to theoretical physics.

Precisely because this is so, it is important for movies to tell more diverse stories.

Biopics can also be about individuals who fascinate people because of singular acts of courage or the incredible journeys they undertake, as in Unbroken and Wild. This is one field where gender and ethnicity confer no added advantage.

The lack of diversity in the current crop is also striking given that there is no lack of strong and distinctive personalities to profile in Asia.

There have been a few reminders from time to time of that. There was Songyos Sugmakanan's The Billionaire (2011), about a Thai entrepreneur made good; Luc Besson's The Lady (2012), about Myanmar political activist Aung San Suu Kyi; and Hanung Bramantyo's Soekarno (2014), about Indonesia's first president.

As The Imitation Game kept reminding the audience, somewhat clunkily: "Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

Those worthy of having a film dedicated to them can come from the unlikeliest of places and it would be powerful to see that reflected in the movies.

Many biopics also follow the predictable story arc of triumph over adversity and fail to deliver nuanced portraits of the protagonists.

Hawking is celebrated for his physics despite being physically debilitated and Turing outwits the Germans despite an inability to play nice with others.

On the whole, biopics tend to portray their subjects in a heroic light. But there are films which break the mould here.

Saint Laurent was a hugely influential figure in fashion but he was no saint. While the movie floundered in giving a sense of the man behind the interlocking initials of YSL, it did not shy away from portraying the destructive side of him.

In Mr Turner, the celebrated painter of light is a gruff and heavyset man who treated many of the women in his life badly. He could also be, by turns, generous, petty, morose, humorous. In other words, a complex human being with flaws and foibles - and also an extraordinary talent.

A biopic's subject need not be likeable. He or she just needs to come across as flesh and blood.

bchan@sph.com.sg