“Based on a true story”: Top 20 Greatest Biopics.

Who doesn’t love a good Biopic? Seeing the true life stories of celebs we all know and love. These type of films always find a way to humanize these icons in a way that makes them far more relatable than we ever imagined. Recently we got some gems in Will Smith’s King Richard and Jennifer Hudson’s Respect, and now’s the time to count down my choices for the top 20 greatest biopics that both humanized these seemingly god like folks and at the same time still entertained us and gave the actors a chance to put out some truly iconic and powerful performances as they embodied the people they were playing.

20. The Ron Clark Story. 2006.

The story of famous educator Ron Clark, an idealistic and dedicated teacher who leaves teaching at an elementary school in North Carolina to teach at Inner Harlem Elementary where he contends with a rowdy bunch of sixth graders. A very uplifting, good natured and often funny as well as poignant film that faithfully illustrated the unique and innovative teaching methods that the real Ron Clark used to help raise test scores. Matthew Perry was perfectly cast as well as the young ensemble including a few familiar faces for Disney fans.

19. Lady Sings The Blues. 1972.

Diana Ross took the world by storm as Jazz legend Billie Holiday. It’s the role and film that made her as well as Billy Dee Williams household names. The story of all the trials and tribulations of Ms. Holiday is done with pure raw honesty as it digs into her troubled upbringing and serious drug addiction in ways that feel so visceral that one forgets they’re watching a film not a hidden camera documentary. What really makes the film, however is the electric chemistry between Ross and Williams. They would end up doing another classic film together as romantic co leads in 1975's Mahogany.

18. Man On The Moon. 1999.

One of Jim Carrey’s first forays into dramatic work, Man On The Moon tells the story of offbeat genius comedian Andy Kaufman and the eccentric way he lived his life as well as a unique approach to performance art. Carrey wouldn’t seem like the first choice for the part but he ended up being the perfect choice. Truly getting the chance to show his range as an actor and giving us all a funny but deeply poignant performance.

17. Something The Lord Made. 2004.

Mos Def and Alan Rickman star in the true story of Carpenter turned Janitor turned Heart Surgeon Vivien Thomas and his mentor and eventual lifelong friend Dr. Alfred Blalock and how they overcame bigotry and status quo to find a new form of heart surgery that would change the game forever. A captivating film with excellent chemistry between the two leads. This was back when made for tv movies were on par with the big screeners. This was an HBO original and a great one at that.

16. The Hurricane. 1999.

The tragic but ultimately triumphant story of Boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter is a deep one and brought to life so perfectly by Denzel Washington and director Norman Jewison. The performances are haunting and the story can stir up a lot of emotion, mostly anger and sadness, but ultimately it’s still an entertaining and powerful film that’s one of Denzel’s very best peformances ever.

15. Get On Up. 2014.

A very overlooked gem of a film that told the life and times of the iconic and immortal funk legend James Brown played to perfection by the late great Chadwick Boseman. The film was both complimentary to the icon as well as truly honest, not hiding his egocentricity, narcissism or temper, including his smacking around his wife. A very well done blend of comedy and drama as well as a unique approach of breaking the fourth wall that I’ve never seen in a biopic before or since. How tragically ironic that we lost one legend in James Brown and then lost another one who played him. Two powerful black figures whom losses we as a world still feel as well as for their industries.

14. The Aviator. 2004.

Leonardo Dicaprio’s turn as the world famous recluse and film director\aviator Howard Hughes is in my opinion one of his all time great performances. The film takes a deep dive into the highly eccentric yet brilliant Howard Hughes and what led to his descent into madness. Expertly directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, the film’s approach to telling the story of Hughes was both honest and done with admiration.

13. Men of Honor. 2000.

Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. star in the powerful and untold tale of Navy Divers and how Carl Brashear, played by Gooding, became the first African American Navy Diver in a time where racism was at its peak. De Niro plays his blunt and no nonsense trainer Leslie Sunday who ultimately gets past his own prejudice and helps Carl prove everyone who doubted him wrong. De Niro and Gooding were both amazing in the film and with the expert direction and production by director and producer George Tillman, Jr. and Co Producer Robert Tietel, the four men did Carl Brashear’s story justice.

12. Dolemite Is My Name. 2019.

Eddie Murphy is back in Dolemite Is My Name. The story of the well known and loved entertainer Rudy Ray Moore and how he went from a struggling comic to a bonafide movie star. Eddie Murphy doesn’t always get the chance to show his impeccable dramatic skills but with this film he got to flex both his comedic and dramatic muscles quite well. A very entertaining film all around and one of Netflix’s most successful original films. All star cast includes Mike Epps, Titus Burgess, Michael Keegan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Luenelle and Wesley Snipes.

11. Lean On Me. 1989.

Truly one of Morgan Freeman’s most signature roles and films along with The Shawshank Redemption, Se7en and Bruce Almighty, Lean On Me is the story of real life principal of Eastside High Joe Louis Clark who ran a tight ship with a tight fist and a bat and loud speaker handy. The film would go on to inspire many, many, many films of its kind about a tough teacher fixing the off the wall schools he or she has been assigned, it essentially created a genre of what I like to call “Teacher movies.” A true classic.

10. Hidden Figures. 2016.

This is the story of three highly intelligent, skilled and strong willed black women who worked at NASA and changed things for both women and African Americans in the space program forever. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae played the three real life heroine divas that each played a huge part in one of the greatest operations in history: The launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. They had to face adversity of course but each woman triumphed and earned their coveted spots that they would get after the success of the mission. The three lead roles couldn’t have been cast any better, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in particular shine brightest, and that’s saying something when you have other great actors in the cast including Kevin Costner, Janelle Monae, Maharsala Ali, Kristen Dunst, Jim Parsons and Aldis Hodge.

9. Boycott. 2001.

Another HBO gem that showed the inception, struggle and ultimate triumph of the great bus boycott of 1955–1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. Starring Jeffrey Wright as the legendary Martin Luther King, Jr. who embodied Dr. King to a T. The whole cast is stellar from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Terrence Howard as Ralph Abernathy to CCH Pounder as Jo Ann Robinson and Reg E. Cathey as E. D. Nixon. Director Clark Johnson’s approach of telling this story through a documentary style was a stroke of genius and gave the film a more intimate feel as if we’re right there in the thick of it with the rest of them. An often overlooked but very strong film that gave the movement its due.

8. Catch Me If You Can. 2002.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks came together to make a classic caper film which also happens to be legendary con man Frank Abagnale Jr.’s life story. This was a man who worked a doctor, a lawyer, and as a co-pilot of a major airline all before he turned 18. After US FBI agent Carl Hanratty played by the always pitch perfect Tom Hanks gets a wind of him the chase is on and the fun truly begins. A top five film on DiCaprio’s, Hanks’ and Spielberg’s lists.

7. A Beautiful Mind. 2001.

Russell Crowe owns the role of John Nash, a brilliant math prodigy who struggles to overcome Schizophrenia to win the Nobel prize. The film had a major impact on shining a light on mental illness and inspiring many folks suffering through it to persevere and they can achieve anything.

6. Why Do Fools Fall In Love. 1998.

What do you get when you have Halle Berry, Vivica A Fox, Lela Rochon and Larenz Tate in a movie? A true classic. Why Do Fools Fall In Love tells the story of Teen pop icon Frankie Lymon and his three gorgeous, distinctive widows who each claim to be the true wife of Frankie and that only they deserve Frankie’s financial and musical legacy in a bitter court battle. The film is pure entertainment with comedy, romance, drama and foot tapping musical performances. Frankie Lymon was a complex young man who truly did love each of these women whom each brought a different side of him. The performances of Larenz Tate, Halle Berry, Vivica Fox and Lela Rochon elevate the film tremendously and the chemistry amongst them was some of the best seen in a ensemble film.

5. Goodfellas. 1990.

“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry Hill got his wish alright and much more. The iconic gangster film that often rivals The Godfather is a wonderful true life story of Gangster Henry Hill and the ups and downs of the life he’s chosen. An iconic cast including Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino, and directed by Martin Scorsese, it has his name and touch all over it. Joe Pesci would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1991 for his iconic performance as the psychotic and temperamental Tommy DeVito.

4. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. 1999.

There truly was no other actress for the role of the legendary Dorothy Dandridge than Halle Berry. Not only did she embody the role but she literally looked the part. She was put on this earth to tell Dorothy’s story and she did it remarkably well. The film digs deep into the tumultuous and yet fulfilling life of Ms. Dandridge who endured bigotry, failed\abusive marriages, sexual assault by a stepmother and pill addiction yet she did it all with class, heart and soul. Brent Spiner as Dorothy’s loyal and devoted friend and agent was spectacular in the role as well as the genuine chemistry between he and Berry. I still wish that Dorothy and Earl could’ve ended up together happy and healthy for the rest of their days.

3. Ray. 2004.

Ray is the story of the life and times of legendary musician Ray Charles who spent his whole adult life struggling to overcome his handicap and drug addiction but in the midst of it all became a true icon one of the most influential musicians in history. Ray paved the way for so many African American talent and deserves all the credit he gets. It’s not too well known that originally Denzel Washington was offered the role of Ray Charles but as brilliant as Denzel is Jamie Foxx was born for this role. He didn’t play Ray Charles he BECAME Ray Charles with uncanny mannerisms, speech cadence etc. He was simply the only choice. The film boasts a great script and a great cast including Kerry Washington, Regina King, Harry Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Clifton Powell, Curtis Armstrong, Terrence Howard, Larenz Tate and Aunjanue Ellis. Foxx deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor against some heavy hitters officially certifying his status as a truly great actor.

2.What’s Love Go To Do With It. 1993.

The Oscars don’t always get it right and the fact that neither Angela Bassett nor Laurence Fishbourne won an Oscar for their amazing performances in the film as Ike and Tina is one of those times. The film is considered one of the all time great films and deservedly so. It told a very powerful and disturbing story about the ugliness of spousal abuse but also was ultimately about female empowerment as well as just independence and love for oneself period. We see the small country girl who sung at the church to the legendary rise of one of our greatest musicians. Bassett and Fisbourne were masterful in the film together, their second onscreen pairing after Boyz In Da Hood. The cast includes Jennifer Lewis, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Chi McBride, Richard T. Jones and Khandi Alexander.

  1. Malcolm X. 1992

It really was between this film and What’s Love Got To Do With It for the number 1 spot, but ultimately I had to give it up to Brother Malcolm once again. A truly perfect film biographically and in general. The film became iconic and still resonates today because of the impact of its performances, writing, and powerful, timeless messages about justice, unity and redemption. Denzel Washington may have never been better than in this signature role and it’s certainly the best film Spike Lee ever did along with his other classics Do The Right Thing, School Days etc. Much like Jamie Foxx and Halle Berry, Denzel was born to play Malcolm and embodied the role as well as just looked it. He both humanized Malcolm and showed the true power and almost God like influence he had on all of us who idolized him. This can never be said enough but… HE WAS ROBBED OF THE OSCAR! Okay, now I’m cool, i’m cool. The film is four hours long which may have factored in the film only being a moderate success at the Box Office but it’s legacy has far outweighed its initial release. We salute you, brother Malcolm.

Also check out the documentary “By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X”. The behind the scenes and making of the film is a great movie in itself.

Honorable Mention:

The Jacksons: An American Dream. 1992.

I couldn’t say goodbye without giving love to one more amazing Biopic. The five part television mini series on The Jacksons that aired on ABC. The mini series detailed the rise and fall of the iconic musical group of brothers The Jackson 5 as well as the rise and fame of Michael Jackson. A great watch that made me hate the hell out of Joe Jackson when I saw it as a kid. Masterful work Lawrence Hilton Jacobs. And yeah… this is the only Michael Jackson movie that needs to ever be mentioned. The less said about the strange Flex Alexander one the better.

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