What is a Biopic?


Tessa Santoli, Staff Writer

‘Biopic’ is a contraction of biographical picture. Movies belonging to this genre focus on dramatized stories of historical figures. They have been popular since big budget cinema made its way into the mainstream cultural consciousness around World War II, however, there has been an influx of biopics being produced within the past couple of decades. 

These movies tend to gross very highly in the box office as they offer an audience artificial intimacy with a real historical figure. This promise of this verisimilitude is attractive to audiences, as our celebrity culture covets the innermost secrets of public figures. While these movies can be striking and beautifully shot, I believe they hold too much weight in cinema today. They are frequently praised by critics for raw performances, despite them not requiring a profound creative vision as there is quite literally a historical rubric allowing it to be metrically judged on accuracy, and have no obligation to present an artfully crafted narrative. This of course appeals to studios, as they can capitalize on existing stories that naturally draw people in, without the responsibility of offering originality to the screen, which can often result in an artless litany of half-assed ego projects.


Beating a Dead Public Figure

It’s no secret that biopics’ success hinges on the insatiable curiosity of human nature. They utilize the glamor, tragedy, or notoriety of widely known public figures as a notification to audiences that the movie will indeed cover the seedy underbelly of their lives, and often, their deaths. The use of celebrity stories is lazy at best and exploitative at worst, frequently treading the line of historical revisionism. Studios are often guilty of saturating and abridging real stories to manipulate an audience’s perception of the celebrity’s role in the narrative, and subsequently, manipulating popular consensus on history. The Biopic is a genre of movie predicated on the exploitation of people whose stories have already been bled dry by celebrity culture.


The Cultural Imagination

The cultural imagination is, simply put, the culmination of art, theory, philosophy, and history that make up cultural paradigms, it is the tentative objectivity of the world’s intellect. A development of the cultural imagination is that of collective standards of accuracy and morality rising and falling based on the growing depth of knowledge in the public sphere. Since the birth of cinema, it has been argued whether or not it was harmful to the cultural imagination. 

Much of this speculation came from cinema being popularized around a time when propaganda posed a great risk to the political fabric of America, and filmmakers were just realizing their ability to rewire the thoughts of an audience in their favor without expressly communicating their views on screen. Nevertheless, cinema occupies an integral space in cultural development, with people citing it for shifts in prototypical American culture, fashion, and individual behavior.

The way biopics reconstruct narratives to cater to a drama seeking audience acts as an oblique threat to the universal intellect. As much as cinema is molded by our society, the same is true inversely. Cinema does not exist in a vacuum. Its appreciable grasp on audiences can be easily wielded, and so too can it be improperly used.


Salvaging Storytelling

Cinema is a mechanism for storytelling. Even the surreal, the broad, and the fantastical pieces of cinema in some way or another reflects our humanity and interrogates human limitation. Movies act as responses to specificities of our societal experience. When a historical account is executed carelessly and inaccurately in favor of the aesthetic presentation of real people, like most biopics are, they deteriorate the artistry and the creativity that movies are meant to provide and leave a collective void of informed consensus on culture. What is left of the cinema if it does not work to dissect both the beauty and the ills of our world?