Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, and The Theory of Everything — biopics make up a significant portion of the movie content that we see today, and have consistently played a large role in the awards season.
A biopic or biographical film is a dramatic intepretation of someone’s true life story. These reinterepretations are always complex, and face increased scrutiny as they attempt to embody not only the facts but the spirit of the person featured, hence why they tend to have a spotlight during the awards season.
This last year saw a plethora of biopics being released, including Bohemian Rhapsody, featuring the band Queen while having a specific focus on the lead singer, Freddie Mercury.
Recent biopics have not only centered on cultural figures, but also political ones, such as On the Basis of Sex, which showcases the young life of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as more serious scientific achievements such as in First Man, which presents Neil Armstrong’s personal, physical, and emotional journeys in getting to the moon.
Biopics can vary greatly, but it’s their universal quality of providing us with an up-close and personal look into the life of a person we have admired or observed that makes them appealing year after year.
With this in mind, I would like to present some interesting, niche stories of people that Hollywood may have forgotten about, but certainly deserve a bit of the spotlight.
Joan of Arc
The year was 1428, in the midst of the Hundred Years War between the French and the English, and the French struggled under an unstable monarchy. At just 16 years of age, Joan of Arc claimed to have heard the voices of saints telling her to go to the Dauphin of France, Charles VIII, to join his cause.
Despite the captain of the garrison rejecting her initial request to join the military, Joan persisted, and managed to secure herself an audience with the Dauphin. She faced extensive questioning by ecclesiastical authorities in the Dauphin’s court before they agreed that she possessed the knowledge of divine spirits, and granted her not only a position in the military but a team of military men to support her mission.
Acting entirely on the voices she heard, Joan of Arc managed to obtain several military victories, earning her the respect and influence to convince the Dauphin to go to Reims, recently freed from enemy hands, and be crowned king of France.
Although she had accomplished her mission and was subsequently idolized throughout France, Joan was not yet done. She continued to launch military campaigns to reclaim more and more land from the English. During one unfortunate campaign, Joan was captured by the Anglo-Burgundian forces, determined a heretic, tried for witchcraft, and burned at the stake at the ripe old age of 19 years old.
Joan of Arc continues to be an icon of the French, and she did receive decent attention in the 1990s, with a French film and a Canadian mini series both attempting to document her life. But 2019 is a new age, one that desperately needs a reminder of how powerful and capable young women can be.
In addition, Joan of Arc resented wearing traditional women’s clothing of the time, and changed into men’s clothing any chance she could get. It would be interesting to see this timeless story told with a modern approach and understanding of feminism as well as gender identity.
The last time a movie was made about Louis Pasteur was in 1936. Considering how medical technology has shifted in recent years, the film certainly deserves a reboot with a modern perspective. If we are going to make yet another movie about an old white man, let it at least be someone who may remind some confused parents as to why it is important and necessary to vaccinate their children.
As a reminder, Louis Pasteur was a French chemist and microbiologist in the mid to late 1800s. His accomplishments include discovering that microorganisms cause fermentation, introducing the pasteurization process, and developing the principle of vaccination. His work with vaccinations was his last contribution to the world of science, but despite his well-respected position in the scientific community, many people were reluctant to accept the concept of vaccinations.
It was not until Pasteur published the results of studies showing the success of an anthrax vaccination that people began to consider his work valid. When Pasteur created a vaccination for rabies, a disease that tormented people for centuries due to its mysterious origin, he vaccinated nine-year Joseph Meister, and introduced the world to preventative medicine.
Today’s ill-informed anti-vaccination movement could do well with a reminder of the origin of vaccinations, not to mention many other simple medical concepts that Pasteur introduced and verified to the world, including the germ theory of disease. Sometimes, in order to move forward, it’s necessary to look back with a gentle reminder of where we came from.
Allow me to introduce you to Gladys Bentley — and for those of you familiar with this lovely jazz and blues singer and LGBTQ+ icon of the Harlem Renaissance, let’s take a walk down memory lane.
Much like her French counterpart, Joan of Arc, Bentley also left home at 16, and found herself at odds with the gender roles placed upon her by society. The oldest of four girls, Bentley left her Trinidadian-American family in Pennsylvania to join the art scene of the Harlem Renaissance in New York. Singing initially at rent parties and buffet flats, Bentley’s uniquely powerful voice and talented blues parodies had her moving on to nightclubs and speakeasies including the famous Clam House and Ubangi Club.
In addition to her musical abilities, Bentley would become known for her unique sense of style that featured a tuxedo and top hat, as well as being very open about her sexuality, having a slew of glamorous girlfriends. The end of the Harlem Renaissance created new challenges for Bentley, who moved to California with her mother, but she still managed to make a living, especially during World War II when gay bars became more common on the west coast.
Unfortunately this came to an end during the era of McCarthyism, which became a witch hunt for gay people in the United States. Facing extreme pressure as a famous lesbian of the time period, Bentley was forced to claim that she had “cured” her lesbianism with hormone treatment, began to wear female clothing, and married a man. During this time, she continued to perform, and joined “The Temple of Love and Christ Inc.” on her way to becoming an ordained minister, before her untimely death in the 1960 flu epidemic.
Bentley’s life highlights the power of the Harlem Renaissance in encouraging not just racial but sexual freedom and acceptance. In addition, her life serves as a brutal reminder of the challenges that members of the LGBTQ+ community faced during the twentieth century. Bentley has received even less attention from Hollywood than Joan of Arc and Pasteur, and deserves the spotlight more than anyone.