While of course the best way to understand the lives of women in history is to read/listen to factual accounts, fictional portrayals can bring personalities to life – one of the reasons everyone loves a good biopic.
In honour of Black History Month, here’s a breakdown of a few of the black women in history to receive the hollywood treatment.
1. Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Based on the life of: Billie Holiday
Directed by: Sidney J. Furie
Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James T. Callahan, Scatman Crothers
A musical legend in her own right, Diana Ross here portrays the life of Jazz royalty Billie Holiday. The film follows Holiday’s troubled adolescence as a cleaner and prostitute in a Harlem brothel to her rise in popularity as a night club performer, as she is propelled towards stardom.
Based on Billie Holiday’s 1954 autobiography, the movie does not shy away from the performer’s battle with addiction.
Among the five Oscar nominations for Lady Sings the Blues, Ross was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
CW for Rape, drug addiction and racist language.
2. Belle (2014)
Based on the life of: Dido Elizabeth Belle
Directed by: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson
This is a heavily fictionalised version of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose father was a British peer and whose mother was a West Indian slave. She was raised as a free noblewoman at Kenwood house in England alongside her white cousin Elizabeth.
The film was partly inspired by the famous painting of Dido and her cousin, and focuses on the legal challenge to slavery which was taking place in the 1800s.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw won Best Actress in the African-American Film Critics Association Awards, the British Independant Film Awards and the Black Reel Awards.
3. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)
Based on the life of: Dorothy Dandridge
Directed by: Martha Coolidge
Starring: Halle Berry, Brent Spiner
Halle Berry stars as the multi-talented Dorothy Dandridge, singer, dancer and actress who was the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.
The film examines Dandridge’s difficult childhood, her love affairs, her rise to fame and the difficulties she faced as a successful black woman in a very racist society.
Berry won the Best Actress Black Reel Award, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance.
4. Black Venus (2010)
Based on the life of: Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Yahima Torres, Olivier Gourmet
In this french and english language film about the unusual and often distressing life of Saartjie Baartman, Yahima Torres stars as the Khoikhoi woman sold to a showman to be exhibited in the 1800s.
She travelled from London to Paris, where crowds came to see what was billed as her ‘Hottentot’ figure in various sideshows.
5. Bessie (2015)
Based on the life of: Bessie Smith
Directed by: Dee Rees
Starring: Queen Latifa, Michael Kenneth Williams, Mo’Nique
Queen Latifa portrays Bessie Smith, legendary blues performer, who rose to fame during the 1920s and ’30s. The film follows Smith from a sad abandoned childhood in Tennessee, to becoming known as ‘Empress of the Blues’.
Smith is depicted as a bold, vibrant, independent woman with a big voice and a penchant for moonshine. The film touches on the many challenges she faced, including an altercation with the KKK.
6. The Josephine Baker Story (1991)
Directed by: Brian Gibson
Starring: Lynn Whitfield, Ruben Blades, David Dukes, Louis Gossett Jr., Craig T. Nelson
A biopic on the life of French-American Josephine Baker, the first black international star and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture.
Hugely talented Baker was a singer, dancer and actress, but also a fierce advocate of civil rights and recipient of the Croux de guerre for assisting the French Resistance during World War II.
Lynn Whitfield won an Emmy for her portrayal of this remarkable woman.
7. What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
Based on the life of: Tina Turner
Directed by: Brian Gibson
Starring: Angela Basset, Lawrence Fishburne
Angela Basset won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as rock star Tina Turner.
The film focuses on Turner’s infamous relationship with Ike Turner (cw for domestic abuse) and her battle to keep the rights to her stage name as she gains confidence as an independent performer.
8. Shirley (2011)
Based on the life of: Shirley Bassey
Directed by: Colin Teague
Starring: Ruth Negga, Lesley Sharp, Babou Ceesay
Ruth Negga stars as mixed race welsh singer Dame Shirley Bassey, best known for belting out some of the most classic James Bond themes including Diamonds are Forever and Goldfinger.
The biopic follows Bassey as she grows up in poverty as part of an eight child family, and is depended upon to make money by singing in local clubs. After her move to London the film charts her rise to one of the most popular British singers of the 1960s.
Negga won Best Actress at the Irish Film and Television Awards for her performance.
9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Based on the life of: Maya Angelou
Directed by: Fielder Cook
Starring: Constance Good, Esther Rolle
Based on her highly acclaimed autobiography of the same name, Maya Angelou wrote the screenplay for the movie re-telling of her childhood years.
The movie traces Maya’s life from she and her brother moving to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, to the trauma of being raped as a young girl by one of her mother’s boyfriends and the several years of silence that followed.
10. Betty and Coretta (2013)
Based on the life of: Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz
Directed by: Yves Simoneau
Starring: Angela Basset, Mary J. Blige
Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, their widows carry on as single mothers and continue to fight for civil rights.