Black Women’s Biopics We’d Love to See

by Stacia L. Brown

With the recent rise of more independent black women directors, such as Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow) and Dee Rees (Pariah), it stands to reason that the spectrum of black female stories being told will only continue to diversify. As such, it would be great to see these groundbreaking new writers and directors tackle some of our oldest and most neglected narratives—those of the pioneering African American women who have helped to weave the rich tapestry of this country.

Here are five historical giants who deserve the glitz and glam of the silver screen:

Ellen Craft

In 1848, Ellen Craft escaped slavery with her husband… by disguising herself as a white male slaveowner traveling with her manservant. The couple published an account of their “hiding in plain view” escape and faced the threat of recapture under the fugitive slave act. They eventually fled to England and raised five kids.

Talk about a happy ending.

This is a story perfect for the screen, and since we’re now in the business of retrofitting slavery to suit our new millennium cinematic purposes, it’s a wonder no one’s optioned it.

Casting suggestions: Jennifer Beals is Hollywood’s go-to biracial-lady-who’s-able-to-pass. So she’d be a contender for Ellen. But if we’re going younger, Rashida Jones is an obvious choice and Jurnee Smollett would be an inspired one. For Ellen’s husband, Michael K. Williams, if we’re sticking to Beals; Michael B. Jordan or Columbus Short otherwise.

Alice Dunbar Nelson

The erstwhile wife of famed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar Nelson was an accomplished poet and novelist in her own right. Her love affair with Dunbar was well-documented in letters, but their marriage was marred and ultimately doomed by his alcoholism. Though they never officially divorced, they separated for good four years before his death. Alice went on to marry twice more.

Alice, a graduate of the college now known as Dillard University and a member of the New Orleans’ Creole community, led a storied and possibly scandalous life (Paul claimed that she took female lovers during their marriage) that the right actress could do a great deal of justice.

Casting suggestions: Sophie Okenedo or, with the right coaching, Alicia Keys. For Paul Laurence Dunbar: Sean Patrick Nelson or Rob Brown.

Zora Neale Hurston

One of the most dynamic black women in modern American history, Zora Neale Hurston’s life deserves the high-budget silver screen treatment. Her story has it all: fame, intrigue, scandal, penniless demise, and posthumous artistic revival.

Though her most beloved work, Their Eyes Were Watching God got the Oprah treatment a few years back, so few of us know all that there is to know about Hurston: one of the country’s first black PhDs in anthropology; an enthusiastic folklorist; and a Fulbright scholar.

Casting suggestions: In a sense, Jenifer Lewis would be great for this; it could be the role that reignites her dramatic career.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells has one of the most compelling back-stories of our time. Best known for her pioneering work as an anti-lynching activist, journalist, and educator, Wells lost her parents and a brother to a yellow fever epidemic and managed to secure a teaching job while also continuing her college studies and raising her remaining siblings. That she was able to accomplish so much thereafter is remarkable and inspiring. Late in life, she ran for Illinois State Legislature, making her one of the first black women to run for public office in this country.

Casting suggestion: Community’s Yvette Nicole Brown would be sublime.

Bessie Coleman

The daughter of sharecroppers, Bessie Coleman was forced to drop out of college after one year for lack of tuition funds. Destiny took over from there and Coleman, who began her professional life as a manicurist, would go on to become the first African American, male or female, to earn an international pilot’s license (having been denied an American one because she was black and a woman). Trained in Paris, Coleman took on air show work in the U.S. to earn enough money to start a flying school, but her dream was never to be; she died at age 34 in a horrific crash while practicing for an air show parachute jump.

Casting suggestion: Taraji P. Henson. It would be great to see what she’d do with this.

Which real-life African American heroines would you like to see in a feature-length film? Who do you think should play them onscreen?

  • African Mami

    Why did you limit it to African-Americans?! I understand Clutch Magazine is a U.S. online publication BUTit caters to black women across the states, and the diaspora, as such I would expect more diversity.

    I want to see a biopic on Graca Machel Mandela! My all time favorite actress in the whole world-Leleti Khumalo should play her!

    I’ve never heard of Ella Craft, but from the synopsis she seems to be a GREAT woman! Would love to see that one too!

  • watcher

    none!!!
    biopics sensationalize people’s lives.

    i can do documentaries though.

  • grace

    If there was one for zora neale hurston it should be queen latifah, she is a dead ringer for her – if you see other pics of Hurston. Hurston is from my alma mater, Barnard.

  • Perverted Alchemist

    Personally, I’d love to see a biopic on Minnie Riperton- her life story was made ot be on film. Now, who should play her…that’s the tricky part…

  • Perverted Alchemist

    *made to be on film

  • http://www.purplekeychain.blogspot.com purplekeychain

    Seconding Zora.

    Would love to see Octavia Butler, as well.

  • @me

    Miriam Makeba (even tho she’s not AA), Shirley Chisolm, Dr. Mae Jemison, Angela Davis, Madame C.J. Walker, Lauryn Hill, and Harriet Tubman. I always see PBS specials on Tubman but nothing that shows the full scope of her humanity.

  • Mimi

    There was an Unsung on Minnie and I must say, I was deeply fascinated by her story and learned a lot about her. Plus, is there anyone who hasn’t tried to hit that impossibly high note in Loving You only to sound like you were strangling a cat? :)

  • http://essencegant.blogspot.com Essence

    LOVE this article! Kimberly Elise would also be a good go-to to tackle such strong roles. She conquers every single role she plays!

  • Perverted Alchemist

    “Plus, is there anyone who hasn’t tried to hit that impossibly high note in Loving You only to sound like you were strangling a cat? :)”

    Shanice Wilson…and that’s about it, LMAO!!!!

  • Clnmike

    Ellen Craft sounds like a winner.

  • Soulfullyreal

    Kimberly Elise as Shirley Chislom= Perfection!

    Alicia Keys was supposed to tackle Lena Horne with Oprah producing it, but i guess it got put on the back burner. I’d love to see that though.

    I’d love to see someone portray Coretta Scott King. How she dealt with the lonliness and infedelity, sacrificing for her husband and ultimately for the movement and her influence after Dr. King died. That would be something. I just looked at a younger picture of Mrs. King and instanly thought Sanna Lathan, I think she’d be perfect.

  • anonymous

    yeah, but who would go see them?

  • Mimi

    EXCELLENT POINT!!!! Last night I saw the trailer for the George Lucas film about the Tuskegee Airmen and I wondered (a) how long will it be in the theaters (b) will it be in a wide array of theaters and (c) who’s gonna go see it. I hope that it does well, but I’m not optimistic.

  • O’Phylia

    Me.

  • pumpkin spice latte

    celia newsome.

  • MarloweOverShakespeare

    Phyllis Wheatley

    Maya Angelou

  • http://www.aworknprogress.com Diana

    - Ella Baker
    - Fannie Lou Hamer
    - Coretta Scott King
    - Bernice Johnson Reagon
    - Mary McLeod Bethune/ Dorothy Height

  • Sindy

    Wow…I could go on but here’s my Top 5

    Elaine Brown
    Madame CJ Walker
    Phyllis Hyman
    Naomi Sims
    Tie for Faith Ringgold or Synthia St. James (visual artists)

  • anonymous

    Hemingway/Lucas’s “Red Tails,” due out later this month, cost $93 million and is surely going to bomb, which means bad news for Black folk in films.

    Let’s see how many people turn out to go to see a film like “Pariah” (which just came out, and is expanding this week, btw) before we start talking about people going to see movies about some of the community’s more historically revered (but arguably obscure insofar as the larger moviegoing population [or even Black youth especially] is concerned).

    Black cinema is in trouble. There are a lot of really exciting things happening, but we can’t hope to even get any of these other kinds stories told until we try to support the up-and-coming folks. And I’m not talking about T.D. Jakes.

  • sli

    Harriet Tubman is my hero or should I say shero…
    Shirley Chisolm is absolutely awesome, love her. Her biopic is long overdue.
    I’m a huge Lauryn Hill fan, but she needs to make that comeback first–so the movie can have a happy ending, lol.

  • tss

    Re-enactor Marcia Estabrook presents Ellen Craft’s story in-character, PBS- WGBH

  • sli

    Oh, I forgot. There’s already a biopic on Harriet Tubman, “A Woman Called Moses,” with Cicely Tyson.

  • Losa

    Nina Simone, Assata Shakur, Aaliyah, Phyllis Hyman, Angela Davis, The Amazon Women warriors of Dahomey, Yaa Asantewaa, Moms Mabley, Flo Jo, Rita Marley, Aretha Franklin, singer Esther Phillips, Celia Cruz, Ramona Africa, Bessie Smith, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Fela’s mother), my mother, yours….

  • Cait

    Diane Nash! She’s an American hero with a fascinating life.

  • isola

    Bethann Hardison– Regina king

  • Alex

    Elaine Brown definitely and Betty Shabazz

  • Wanett

    A story about the women of Dahomey would be fierce!

  • Wanett

    Thanks for this article. I’m reading the ebook of the account of their escape that Ellen and William Craft wrote. It is so powerful, from the very first pages. You can download it for free here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/585 Despite taking a number of AA and African studies classes, I had never heard their story before.

    Another tale that escaped me (and many others likely) is the tale that Walter Dean Meyers tells in At Her Majesty’s Request An African Princess in Victorian England. This is the story of a child that was minutes from being executed before being saved by a Brit visiting the cruel King of the Dahomey people. She ended up being a part of the royal family’s life until her death, the Queen even served as god mother of her child. I was fascinated by her existence and the strange turns her life took.

  • http://stacialbrown.com Stacia L. Brown

    thanks so much for this link! i first heard about Ellen Craft via one of these booklets, when i was a girl (who remembers these?): http://www.amazon.com/Salute-Historic-Black-Women/dp/0961615605

    i actually can’t wait to read their autobiography.

  • Jess

    Ida B. Wells was truly a “sword among lions”. She is my hero and should be praised by every Black American, especially Black man for her incredible work against lynching. I mean this is a woman who went to investigate lynching raids and Klan rallies, undercover, by herself, with her BABY on her back.. You can’t get any rawer than that. Ida B. is a LEGEND..But don’t look to Hollywood to make any blockbusters about that. They don’t want Black women looking too good, now.

    If more Black men knew what Ida B. Wells was about, I think some of their contempt for Black women would diminish (well, maybe a little). But doubtful, unfortunately.

  • Chnyere

    favorite article, I learned alot :)

  • Bunny

    Thank you for this!

  • http://nocturneadagio.blogspot.com LainaLain

    I’d like to see all of them. It would show black women in a more positive light.

  • http://www.herfilm.wordpress.com Kyna

    I’d love to see all of these biopics made, but I would add these women to the list:

    - Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson, probably most famous as Paul Robeson’s wife. She was an accomplished person, an activist and anthropologist, writer and manager of her husband’s business & film affairs to boot. She traveled through Africa making anthropological films and wrote a book about it.

    - Phyllis Wheatley, the 18th century poet — first African American poet and first published African American woman writer. THAT would be a fantastic movie!

    - Tituba, maybe based on Maryse Conde’s novel

    - Angela Davis!!!

    - Nina Simone!!!

    - Mae Jamison!!!

  • Leo the Yardie Chick

    These women and their histories would indeed make for excellent bio-pics. =D My biggest grouse is that I don’t trust Hollywood to do them justice. Maybe if they were entertainers (go figure >_>), but ordinary black women beating the odds in far more overtly-racist times? With no plucky white hero/heroine to serve as a buffer?I can already hear the bean counters saying how that wouldn’t go over well with ‘the masses’.

  • 2012Chocolate

    I only know of two of the women you named….so it’s doesn’t sound interesting to me. sorry

    I would like to see a movie about Tami Terrell….now her story is interesting….she died at such a young age..and the men and her music. I think there is such a striking resemblance between her and Taraji P. Henson.

    Madame CJ Walker – Kimberly Elise would do a great job

    Naomi Sims- I can’t really think of a movie that has touched on black women in fashion other than Mahogany. Maybe played by Tika Sumpter

    Other people:
    Flo Jo ( Florence G. Joyner) – Sanaa Lathan
    Ella Fitzgerld – Jill Scott
    Shirley Chisolm- Angela Bassett
    The Clark Sisters – too many of them to name…I see Jennifer Hudson as one of them
    Cicely Tyson- I think she’s earned herself a movie for sure- Kimberly Elise and/or Oprah :) in her later years

  • Julie

    Oh I want to see all of these films! Someday! (soon, hopefully)

  • http://www.girllnexxdoor.com Theresa C.

    Very happy that Zora Neale Hurston is mentioned in this piece (which is great by the way). Her story is utterly amazing. Would have loved to be a fly on her wall when she roamed these streets to see her in action. Great piece!

  • chinaza

    Leontyne Price-legendary opera diva- Kimberley Elise

    Leymah Gbowee- Nobel peace prize 2011- Queen Latifah

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