On Hurdles Faced By Biopics of Black Public Figures - Legal Rights, Ethical/Moral Obligations & More
Photo Credit: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) mourns for the mother she never knew Spring 2017
Film , Television , Web Series

On Hurdles Faced By Biopics of Black Public Figures - Legal Rights, Ethical/Moral Obligations & More

“The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks” – HBO

In light of yesterday’s news that the family of Henrietta Lacks is divided over the upcoming HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey – specifically Lacks’ son, Lawrence’s side of the estate, who are unhappy with the depictions of the family in both author Rebecca Skloot’s bestseller, and the film it has inspired, as well as the compensation they were offered from the producers of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” telepic in consultation fees that came with stipulations they were unwilling to agree to – I was reminded of the numerous individual pieces we’ve written on this blog over the years about family/rights holder/influencer/producer/distributor quarrels over films and other screen projects that tell stories about real-life people (dead or alive). It’s maybe actually a rare occurrence that a biopic is announced and there isn’t somebody, somewhere related to the subject of the biopic in some way (family, business partner, friend, etc), who publicly decries and contests the making of the project, and in some cases is in a powerful enough position to actually create real problems for the producers.

Many of the biopics we’ve covered here on S&A have found themselves in the middle of squabbles over rights issues with, or approval/authorization from the real-life subjects of the biopics (if they’re still alive), or those who control their estates, family members, or other influential figures close to the subject with the ability to, in some cases, outright freeze a production, or stop it entirely.

The list is long, and long-time readers will be familiar with some or all of these and more:

— There was the Winnie Mandela project, starring Jennifer Hudson: The real Winnie didn’t approve; in fact, J-Hud, nor the filmmakers, even met with her.

— At least 2 Martin Luther King Jr films: Oliver Stone’s project which was to star Jamie Foxx is now histoy; as well as “Selma,” when it was a Lee Daniels project, before Ava DuVernay took over (you’ll recall Andrew Young’s objections to any depictions of MLK that he felt would put his legacy in question, as well as the King estate being unhappy with the scripts Daniels would’ve directed).

— The Marvin Gaye films: Berry Gordy blocked features on the life of Marvin Gaye, reportedly for fear that he – Gordy – would be depicted negatively; Gordy is said to own some rights to Marvin Gaye, at least, in part, and decisions to tell Gaye’s story in any format would require Gordy’s approval. Also there was Janis Gaye, the late singer’s second and last wife, who was vocal about her concerns of planned depictions of drug use and other unflattering depictions of Gaye in any film. And there were/are Gaye’s children who control the estate, and who weren’t involved in the making of a project like the one Jesse L. Martin was to star in, which was never completed. There are now multiple Marvin Gaye projects in the works, both with the cooperation of Gordy and the Gaye family.

— The B.B. King project which was to star Wendell Pierce, ran into trouble when the real B.B. King (obviously he was alive at the time; he passed away in 2015) shared his disapproval publicly, leading to Pierce saying that he wouldn’t work on the project without King’s approval.

— The Jimi Hendrix film starring Andre Benjamin: The Hendrix Estate didn’t authorize/approve the project, and so didn’t allow the use of Hendrix’s original music in the film, which, by some accounts, hurt the film which John Ridley directed and was eventually released. There is at least one other Hendrix film in development currently.

— And, of course, maybe the most publicized of all, the Nina Simone film starring Zoe Saldana, marred with a number of different problems, which also didn’t have the authorization/approval from the Simone Estate. That, and other reasons which have been well-documented, hurt the film’s reputation tremendously.

There are several others, but you get the picture.

I did some research to see if I’d notice any trends with regards to biopics that were produced and released without the approval of the subject of the biopic (if they’re still alive, which is rare), or whomever controls the subject’s estate, but I can’t say I noticed any definite commonalities.

One thing I did discover is that it’ perfectly legal to make a film about a real-life person (dead or alive) without their approval and/or without acquiring their “life story rights.” For example, there are 2 Angela Davis films in development currently; one is authorized, while the other is not. It’s not so simple however; there are complexities to this that I’m not qualified to speak on, but the short answer is yes, you can do that (make a film about a real-life person without their consent and/or without acquiring their “life story rights”), as long as you’re willing to risk a lawsuit later on, which might get in the way, or slow down the eventual release of your film.

A filmmaker has the right to make a movie about any person, as long as it doesn’t defame, slander or outright fabricate stories about the person, or violate their privacy rights – 2 things that can be hard to avoid; after all, you’re telling the story of a human being, unless it’s a work of hagiography. So understand that, while you have the freedom, there are pros and cons to whatever choices you make in telling the story, as well as potential legal risks that you need to be sure you’re willing to accept. This is where you’d definitely need to have a lawyer’s expertise to guide you.

For example, a pro in having full authorization/approval is that it’ll help with your marketing; the real-life person (if they’re still alive; and/or their family, friends, etc) might help you promote it, even if it’s just by giving the project their public approval. Of course, that could actually hurt the film as well, because some audiences might question why anyone would so willingly support a project that told their life story honestly, warts and all, with the thinking being that it’s not a truly honest work.

And it’s partly for that reason that filmmakers like Darrell Roodt (the director of “Winnie”), for example, didn’t seek the real Winnie Mandela’s approval – because he wanted to, as he implied, be free of any influence, and be able to tell the story how he felt it should be told (of course, hopefully relying on researched facts, and not fabrication for the sake of being sensational).

Speaking as filmmaker myself, I’d love to have the person (or whomever is handling their estate) approve of my project; however, I’d also hope that their approval doesn’t come with conditions – a hurdle for some of the above listed projects; although others clearly moved ahead without having that approval. But I say, if you’re giving me your blessing, then allow me to tell your entire story, not just what you want me to show, or what you want the world to see. After all, most filmmakers tackling real-life subjects on film are likely doing so because they are attracted to that person’s life for one reason or another, or they admire them as they are, and the journeys they took to become public figures; and the desire to tell their story is positively motivated.

If I don’t have the approval I want, I’d probably be ambivalent about moving forward with my project, if only to avoid any potential lawsuits or other problems down the road, as I mentioned above. But also because I think I’d feel a sense of obligation, whether ethical or moral. I don’t know if I’d be as bold as some filmmakers have been recently to proceed with a real-life figure’s life-story, without some kind of a nod from them; or at the very least, I wouldn’t want to go into the project with them strongly against it, so much that they’re very publicly vocal about their rejection of it (which was the case in some of the films that skipped approval altogether and were eventually produced and released). It’s probably best to avoid as much potential negative press for your project, even though the old industry belief that all press is good press.

This reminds me of Stokely Carmichael’s/Kwame Ture’s insistence on depicting virtues versus vices in filmed representations of real-life people, like MLK for example. As noted, Andrew Young’s very public objections to at least one previous MLK film, caused delays in its production; a film that would reportedly emphasize MLK’s vices, and not just revel in hagiography. Young is said to have objected to scripts which included scenes of marital infidelity during MLK’s final days, among other “vices.”

The late Kwame Ture suggests in the below video clip that Hollywood peddles vice as entertainment, which he finds problematic.

There are those who prefer that fictionalized filmed stories about iconic figures of history, should essentially canonize them, or at least, as Kwame Ture notes, focus on their virtues. And there are those on the opposite end, who feel that a warts and all depiction “humanizes” them, making their achievements more accessible to those of us who hold them in such high regard.

Where do you stand? Watch it and share your thoughts.

I think this ties in very nicely with our ongoing discussions about the so-called “burden of representation” some expect black public figures to carry, while others don’t; or more specifically, the battle between “positive” and “negative” portrayals of black people on screen.

Also, if you’re currently developing a film that tells a story of some real-life figure, whether in part, or in full, please share your journey if you can, and enlighten the rest of us.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” telepic (which we expect will be an Emmy contender) premieres this weekend, on Saturday, April 22.

Watch Kwame Ture below: