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Filmmakers should take considerable care when portraying real people

Filmmakers should take considerable care when portraying real people

Filmmakers should take considerable care when portraying real people
October 15
18:47 2019

When it comes to adapting real life people to film, it is extremely important that filmmakers do right by them.

Celebrated filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” sparked controversy for its depictions of Bruce Lee, Sharon Tate and members of the Manson Family.

Shannon Lee gave an interview with Variety where she harshly condemned what she considered a racist and marginalizing portrayal of her father. Tarantino responded by misattributing a quote from Linda Lee Caldwell’s biographical memoir, “Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew.”  Many more have since jumped in to defend Lee’s memory and lambast the portrayal of Lee in “Hollywood,” portrayed by Mike Moh.

In my opinion, the film brutally mishandles both Lee and Tate, using them as props for the physical achievements of the main protagonists.

While Mike Moh might give a genuinely excellent portrayal that at least recaptures Lee’s charisma, he only barely elevates what is ultimately a cardboard stereotype of an arrogant kung-fu dude. His true purpose is to act as a medium for the showcase of the fighting prowess of Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. 

While Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra Tate, approved of how Tarantino handled her, she has maybe a handful of lines in the film and is otherwise a constantly grinning ray of sunshine that has no real depth. While there is some enjoyment to be had in one particular scene in which she watches herself in the 1968 flick, “The Wrecking Crew,” where the real Tate is respectfully used instead of being digitally replaced, there’s not much depth here. Margot Robbie deserved a much meatier role to work with.

Here’s another thing: This isn’t the only time filmmakers have disrespectfully mishandled their depictions of real people, even in stories where they’re not the protagonist.

Another particularly egregious example would be Craig Bierko’s portrayal of Max Baer, a World Heavyweight Champion who is something of a Jewish icon, in the 2005 Ron Howard biopic “Cinderella Man.”

The real-life Baer has been described as a kind and altruistic man who knocked out Max Schmeling, another heavyweight champion who was something of an idol for the Nazi party. Bierko’s Baer is a loud-mouthed, misogynistic and sadistic bully, who shows no remorse for accidentally killing an opponent in the ring and is a flat caricature. In reality, Baer was deeply regretful for his actions and sent $15,000 to his opponent’s wife, with the incident haunting him for the rest of his life.

Furthermore, his heritage is reduced to merely the Star of David on his boxing trunks. This meager nod is quite questionable and incredibly unsympathetic.

So, what happens when a portrayal is too sympathetic?

The 2018 crime drama biopic “Gotti” starred John Travolta as the legendary mobster John Gotti. An interesting monster of a mobster, he used assassinations to take over the powerful Gambino crime family and gained infamy for his rumored pushing of the family into drug dealing but for dozens of assassinations and for being nearly impossible for the FBI to indict.

While the film depicts nearly all of this, including the tragic death of his youngest son, it is incredibly sympathetic to a fault. 

The Gotti family had substantial creative input, not only giving Travolta access to his personal memoirs, but to his clothes as well. As a result, it has a strong pro-Gotti slant when it comes to the prosecution, seemingly pushing the belief that the FBI wrongly targeted John Gotti, even though the film shows him taking pleasure in committing and profiting from his underworld dealings.

Yet, the filmmaker’s sympathies seem to lie strongly with Gotti. A respected man, yes, but also one who wielded his power via mob hits, protection rackets and possibly the distribution of illegal substances. Strongarming and jury-rigging were also quite common during his tenure as head of the Gambino crime family. But hey, he showed the “world who’s boss,” so all that must be OK.

I am not arguing that all filmmakers need to create a collectively homogeneous portrait of a human being. People are multi-faceted and have experienced a wide range of experiences that affected their reasons for why they were like that.

What I’m saying is that there are indeed disrespectful ways to depict people.  These people lived, interacted with and impacted the world. Their stories were interwoven with those they loved and what they brought to the world, both good and bad.

Their stories matter as does the way people see them on the silver screen.

Featured Illustration: Zahraa Hassan

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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