Ten Americans Who Deserve Great Biopics

Hendrick Hertzberg joins my call for more Revolutionary War movies, saying in particular that we should have a definitive Alexander Hamilton biopic. I agree, though I might recommend an adaptation of David Liss’s The Whiskey Rebels instead of a more straightforward approach. But I also think this points to a larger problem: we need a more creative approach to biopics that’s oriented towards truly great stories instead of just the most famous people who a talented actor would enjoy impersonating. To wit, ten suggestions from American history.

1. Harriet Tubman: The Underground Railroad is one of the coolest things to happen in American history, and it’s only part of what makes Harriet Tubman awesome. Tubman made 13 runs on the Underground Railroad, an act of outrageous courage given the fate that would have awaited her as a conductor were she ever caught. She was the first woman to head up a Union military expedition—which involved guiding ships past a river Confederate forces had mined—during which she helped free more than 700 slaves. And she did all of this despite having seizures and headaches. And it might be fun to see Viola Davis cut loose a little bit post The Help, or to see C.C.H. Pounder deploy her glorious steeliness on an iconic portrayal of Tubman.

2. Ida Tarbell, Ida Wells and Nellie Bly: I’m a sucker for movies about journalists, and these three women are best in class. From Tarbell’s investigation of Standard Oil, which set the standard for document-based investigative journalism going forward; to Wells’ reporting on lynching in America; to Bly’s expose of the state of mental health treatment for the poor, all three were absolutely fearless, telling stories about bureaucracies and norms and prompting reform or efforts at reform. Too often, journalism movies and television shows have to gin up absolutely ridiculous plots to up the stakes—sorry, State of Play, I love you, but it’s true. But sometimes journalists go where the government won’t, even within our own country, at considerable risk to themselves. All three roles would be juicy, but I’d particularly like to see Kerry Washington, so wonderful in The Last King of Scotland, play Wells, who was just a few years younger than Washington is now when she gave her seminal speech on lynching.

3. William Howe and Abraham Hummel: Want a great portrait of Gilded Age New York? And a biopic that could actually be a fantastic dark comedy? A dual biopic of these notorious New York lawyers who represented everyone from free love advocate Victoria Woodhull (side note: the Henry Ward Beecher adultery trial would also make a great movie) to notorious New York gang leader John Dolan, they were themselves somewhat shady figures who represented both the worst excesses and some of the most progressive impulses of the era. Ian McShane would kill as William Howe.

4. Frank Kameny and Bayard Rustin: Harvey Milk was an undeniably key figure, and a martyr to the cause of gay rights. But even if you don’t get to end their stories with an assassination as a high point, Kameny and Rustin lived big, forceful lives, often under difficult circumstances. Kameny was fired by the Army for being gay, but bucked tradition by refusing to go quietly. He became a leader in the Mattachine Society (a pet subject for me) and lived to see the federal government apologize to him, a tremendously moving occasion—I was lucky enough to be there to see it. Rustin learned non-violent resistance in India with Gandhi—he was regularly arrested both there and in Africa—but in his own country, his colleagues in the Civil Rights movement kept him behind the scenes because he was gay.

5. Leland Stanford: Not all subjects of biopics need to be heroes, something that’s forgotten all too often. Stanford fanned anti-Chinese sentiment in California even as he imported Chinese workers to labor on construction of his railroads, a story currently getting ignored in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, and his career as a robber baron and politician illustrate the dangers of an overly-cozy relationship between business and government. Plus, we’d get a scene of the dude rowing to his own inauguration as Governor of California through a natural disaster. Ron Swanson would be proud.

6. Lyndon Baines Johnson: Tragic, complex, abusive, and funny, Johnson may be the president since Teddy Roosevelt who would make the most intriguing biopic subject. I have no idea who would play him, but a movie about his decision not to run for reelection would make for a fascinating snapshot, as would a movie about him immediately in the wake of Kennedy’s assasination, though neither would fully reckon with his full domestic and international legacy.