If you consult the history books, it often feels like the only people who have ever made much of an impact are white guys. Of course, we know that’s not the case, but it does have the unfortunate side effect of making the lion’s share of historical biopics revolve around white men. When one group is so massively overrepresented amongst producers, directors, and screenwriters, the heroes tend to look like them. But history is vast, and there are so many figures who deserve to have their stories told on the big screen even when they don’t fall into the scope of what we’ve learned in school. It is time for the unsung heroes of history to have their day in the sun!
There must have been something in the water in the late 1700s because it seems like everyone and their brother was caught up in a revolution on one side of the Atlantic or the other. But while there’s a lot of attention paid to the American and French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution is one that never gets its due. Which is crazy because it is an incredible story. Its leader was Toussaint Louverture, who was responsible for turning a slave insurrection into a proper army to fight against the French colonial forces, which resulted in the only successful slave uprising that resulted in a free state-run by non-whites. While he is the subject of a 2012 French miniseries, Louverture’s life feels long overdue for a big-screen adaptation.
There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than movies about Hollywood, so why not take a chance on a film about one of the first successful black film directors? Although many of Oscar Micheaux’s films are unfortunately considered lost, he was a prolific filmmaker who contributed greatly to the discourse surrounding race throughout the 1920s and 1930s. One of his first films, “Within Our Gates”, is a fiery response to DW Griffith’s’s racist epic “Birth of a Nation”. Throughout his career, he made films outside of the Hollywood studio system about contemporary African-American life and carved out a position on the cultural landscape for the black community.
Mochizuki Chiyome reportedly lived through some of the most vicious and violent years in Japan’s history. Still, after losing her samurai husband in battle, she made a bold move that no one would have expected for a widow. She started her own secret ninja academy for women. She created a home for vulnerable women that would also serve as a training facility so that they could eventually work as spies and assassins for the Takeda family, of which Mochizuki was a member. Is her existence 100% verifiable? No. This is the 1600s, and no one wrote about women back then anyway. But is it a great enough story that we’re willing to take it on faith? Yes.
If we can have a reasonably bog-standard biopic about Judy Garland (albeit with an excellent performance from Renee Zellweger), there’s certainly room in the world for a good one about living Hollywood legend Rita Moreno. Her experience as a young Latina acting in 1960s Hollywood and all of the inherent struggles and prejudices that entailed would make for a fascinating story. And most importantly, it would give an energetic young Latina actress a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase her talents. With the new Spielberg adaptation of “West Side Story” on the horizon, now is a perfect time.
Yaa Asantewaa is a crucial figure in Ghanaian history, a woman who was willing to take on the entire British empire. It all began when a colonial officer demanded to sit on the Golden Stool, a holy symbol of the Ashanti people, which was at best a major diplomatic gaffe and, at worst, an act of sacrilege. War followed, and Yaa Asantewaa was placed at the head of the Ashanti. They launched a siege on an underprepared British fort and succeeded in holding them there for several months. Although eventually defeated and exiled to Seychelles, Yaa Asantewaa is remembered in Ghana as a brave, proud warrior queen.
You may be thinking to yourselves, “How is it possible that there hasn’t been a Langston Hughes biopic yet?” Well, friends, there hasn’t. He’s’s been featured in some period films as a side character, but when it comes to getting his very own movie, Hughes has come up short. And it’s been tough to figure out why. The Harlem Renaissance is a fantastically stylish backdrop for any period drama, and Langston Hughes lived a rich life of poetry and social activism. There was some conversation a few years ago about Jussie Smollett playing a role in a feature-length biopic, but nothing recently, so it appears that this is still a void that desperately needs to be filled.
Married to Justinian I, Theodora was empress of the Eastern Roman Empire back in the 500s. And her rags to riches story is an all-timer. Working as an actress and prostitute (back then, there wasn’t much of a difference), Theodora met Justinian, then heir to his uncle Justin I. Justinian swiftly repealed the law that prevented him from marrying an actress, and two years after their marriage she was ruling over the entire empire. As empress, she did a great deal of work helping underprivileged women and was a strong advocate for women’s rights.
Zita, Empress of Austria
There’s no use pretending that people don’t like a good film about European royalty because they do. But perhaps it is time to focus on one who is rarely mentioned, mostly because she had the misfortune of being the Empress of Austria just as it was about to break apart. Empress Zita is a fascinating figure: one of the dispossessed Duke of Parma’s twenty-four children, she was married to Emperor Charles and ruled alongside him for just under two years, after which they were deposed amidst the failures of World War I. She spent the majority of her life as a political refugee, eventually landing in Quebec with her eight children after the Nazi rise to power forced them to flee Europe.
Let’s talk for a minute about the daughter of Lord Byron. Doesn’t the world deserve a moody, atmospheric biopic about a 19th-century lady mathematician who poured herself into academic pursuits in an attempt to stave off the onset of madness she was worried about inheriting from her father? Ada Lovelace was a woman who just came up with the basic idea for computer programming in the 1830s, as though that was a normal thing to do forty years before the world even had lightbulbs. Surely this is a role that Felicity Jones has given her agent permission to accept on sight.
Fredi Washington seemingly touched every part of early twentieth-century culture, from her time as a dancer in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, her brief career as a film actress in the 1930s, and her role as a civil rights activist in later years. A particularly light-skinned black woman, she was most famous for her role in “Imitation of Life,” where she played a teenager resentful of her African-American roots who attempts to pass as white. Her skin color made it difficult for her to find work in Hollywood, where casting directors considered her too light to play stereotypical roles often offered to black actresses of the time, but also dark for traditional leading lady parts. Regardless, she found plenty to keep her busy: she was a co-founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America, dated Duke Ellington for a time. She worked with the NAACP to bring attention to issues faced by the black community in American society.