biopics

Based on Real Events by Tim Nuttall

Movie-goers flocked to movie theatres on the weekend that Hustlers opened. The scam saga made off with a cool $33.2 million at the box office unexpectedly, and has become one of the first non-franchise blockbuster hits. Though it's not an original story idea, it is a real story. Well, at least it’s inspired by one. “Inspired by,” “based on,” and overall biopics have become a hot topic in the film industry as of late. Judy Garland fans look forward to seeing the biopic Judy coming at the end of September, Elton John and Freddie Mercury fans flocked to theaters to see Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, respectively. Though not everyone has been happy with their depiction in “based on” movies.

Samantha Barbash, real life hustler Jennifer Lopez portrays in Hustlers has been continuously disappointed by her characterization in the movie. “I wasn’t really that impressed,” Barbash said. “I was impressed with Jennifer. She was incredible. Her body looked incredible. She had it down to a T, but it wasn’t factual.” If she was so disappointed, then why didn’t she just give her side of the story? Barbash spoke up about this, claiming that the amount offered was too miniscule. “I’m a businesswoman. J. Lo doesn’t work for free. Why would I? At the end of the day, I have bags that are worth more than what they wanted to pay me.” Barbash has since threatened to sue STX unless a compensation can be met. 

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Barbash isn’t the only person who has been displeased with her depiction in film. Sgt. Jeffery Sarver attempted to sue the creators of The Hurt Locker for using his likeness and story without his permission. Mark Boal, who had interviewed Sarver for Playboy and eventually went on to write the screenplay, argued the protagonist was not based on Sarver despite the resemblances. Sarver lost the case in 2016 on the grounds of the First Amendment. A similar case happened in 2017 when Olivia de Havilland attempted to sue FX for her depiction in Feud. The case was dismissed similarly in the way that Sarver’s case was. “Whether a person portrayed in one of these expressive works is a world-renowned film star – ‘a living legend’ – or a person no one knows, she or he does not own history,” the three-judge panel wrote in its decision. “Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.” 

Filmmakers have their reasons for changing facts or altering history within their stories. A story always has a clear outline of start to finish and within there are high points and low points. No one wants an audience falling asleep. This is a movie, after all, not a three-hundred page text book. The problem with people taking up issues with certain biopics is that some of them purport to be films of record, not just a movie. Bohemian Rhapsody re-created the Live Aid sequence shot for shot, which is advertising realism to an audience. The creators of The Green Book were disproportionately white, which did not sit well with the real life family members of the famous black pianist Don Shirley. Samantha Barbash is rightfully mad at her fictional depiction in Hustlers, especially since the movie fabricated the idea of her coming up with the idea to drug men, cook drugs in her own home, and her sisterly relationship with Destiny. 

The idea of free speech still stands, however. No one owns history. Going about making a show or movie about someone’s life can be difficult and there are many laws you need to follow. The filmmakers of The Social Network managed to get away with making a film about the Facebook millionaires by marketing it as a docudrama. Everyone has a Right to Privacy. So long as you don’t overstep those boundaries and don’t defame anyone, you are pretty much in the clear. Something that Barbash, Sarver, and Havilland have in common is that the stories either weren’t focused on just them or they had already given their story to a book or magazine. Taking public property and making something based on that public property is protected by the First Amendment, whether some people like it or not. For all you filmmakers out there thinking of doing a biopic, make sure you do your research on the story, the people, and the law. Never overstep your boundaries, or you might have some real life backlash. 

Written by Sabrina Strausbaugh