I was unexpectedly sad two days before Christmas to learn that John Lawrence, the plaintiff Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned sodomy laws in the United States, had died in late November virtually unnoticed by the country he helped change, and to learn from that obituary that Tyron Garner, with whom he was arrested for having sex (though both men said they were never intimate) had died in 2006. The news touched me not just because I was volunteering for Freedom to Marry Massachusetts the summer the Lawrence decision came down, and so felt it as a victory in a battle I was engaged in, but because it made me think about what happens to people after they do their part to make history and memory and its failures.
Biopics of very famous people have become an extremely reliable way for acclaimed actors to finally claim the hardware that has eluded them for other parts, or to claim more hardware and a confirmation of their greatness. But we don’t really need a biopic about Margaret Thatcher, whose life and legacy seem sufficiently understood. Even a figure like Ronald Reagan, whose life and legacy are distorted almost continually, doesn’t seem particularly needy: the myths and corrections are issued quickly and forcefully. There will be no authoritative version of his life in film or otherwise—partisans on both sides are sure they have the truth already. Sometimes, a biopic does the interesting thing of illuminating a very great and famous person through someone who played a pivotal role in their life. The King’s Speech may have seemed to some people an unworthy trifle to bring in such a haul earlier this year, but it has the virtues of being a fine film about class and medicine in addition to an illumination of a king.
But how about the people who were the real sparks to history themselves—after all, if there hadn’t been Lionel Logue, there would have been someone else, and more importantly, there still would have been the speech—but are forgotten. We’ve done a better job of remembering the Little Rock Nine than we have James Lawrence and Tyron Garner, even though they’re further in the distance, but even then, we see them as elements in a collective image. We don’t know very much about what makes them decide to integrate a school. And we don’t know very much about what made a Texas medical technician decide he could carry forth as the representative of a difficult cause, and how it came to be that one of his lawyers didn’t even know he’d died after their great victory. Good biopics should do more than affirm the greatness of the great. They should tell us something about history, particularly when it fails us and fails us quickly.