Most people I know profess to not like film biopics. “That’s not really the way it happened,” is the customary complaint. For reply, I usually quote the novelist Stanley Elkin, from his masterpiece, The Living End. Ellerbee, Elkin’s protagonist, demands in anger and misery to know what was God’s goal “…when You shaped shit and fashioned cancer.” God’s explanation: “It makes a better story is why.”
Of the many biopics I’ve enjoyed over the years, I have particular fondness for Scott Joplin, featuring Billy Dee Williams as the composer, and Art Carney as his publisher, John Stark. I rented the film while I was working on The Ragtime Kid, the first book in my ragtime historical mystery trilogy: not that I thought I’d get any particular information on Joplin’s life beyond what I’d taken from the many ragtime histories I’d read, but I hoped to get a visual sense for 1899 Sedalia, Missouri that I could translate into words. And in fact, that’s what happened. But I reaped a second benefit I had not anticipated. Many ragtime buffs who read my book told me John Stark had sounded just as they’d always imagined him, and a great part of the credit for that went to Carney’s portrayal of the man, which rang in my ears as I wrote the story. Was the actor’s representation truly accurate? Who can say: there are no known recordings of Stark’s voice. But his actions as a white publisher toward a black composer were, for that time and place, exemplary and extraordinary, and his movie speech beautifully supported his behavior. It made the story better.
Last night, I watched 42, a biopic of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson as they worked to break the color barrier in major league baseball. I’ve read extensively on this subject, and was impressed that the movie stuck very closely to the actual history. Yes, some of the episodes were dramatized, and there were insertions that were clearly fictional. For example, it’s well-known that Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese, a Kentuckian, made a point of putting an arm around Robinson in Cincinnati, in front of thousands of fans violently hostile to the black player. But the scriptwriter put in two characters, a father and son from Kentucky; the young boy was a heavy-duty Pee Wee fan. As the father shouted vicious racist insults at Robinson, the boy, persuaded that this was the thing to do, joined in. But when Reese trotted over to put an arm around his teammate, the expression on the kid’s face made it clear that he’d have to do some heavy thinking before he’d ever again yell “Nigger!” at a black man. Better story? Absolutely.
So why am I reading all this material and watching biopics on this subject? You don’t really have to ask, do you? Couple of years down the road, when Mo’less Jones – A Mystery comes out, we’ll see whether it helped me tell a better story.