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Biopics: The Controversial, the Renowned, the Historic

Lady Sings The Blues (1972)

Biographical movies have been as much a staple of the film industry as lights, cameras, and action heroes. Often, the lead characters in biopics are controversial, not the actors who play them—which seems to be the case with actor Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of legendary songstress Nina Simone in the upcoming “Nina” (scheduled for release on April 22).

Here is a list of 15 controversial, renowned, and historic characters whose stories were brought to life by actors on the big screen.

Patton (1970)

Starring George C. Scott as U.S. Gen. George S. Patton; with Karl Malden, Stephen Young, and Michael Strong.

This film focuses on the World War II phase of the career of controversial, outspoken U.S. Gen. George S. Patton. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Leading Role, which Scott declined, and Best Picture.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Starring Diana Ross as jazz singer Billie Holiday; with Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, and James Callahan.

The voice of legendary jazz songstress Billie Holiday was ultimately silenced by a turbulent life and drug addiction. This film, which recounts Holiday’s rise to stardom, was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actress in a Leading Role for Ross.

Raging Bull (1980)

Starring Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta; with Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, and Frank Vincent.

This film follows an emotionally self-destructive boxer on his journey through life, revealing how the violence and temper that lead him to victory in the ring destroy his life outside it. De Niro’s portrayal of LaMotta earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Gandhi (1982)

Starring Ben Kingsley as revolutionary leader Mohandas K. Gandhi; with Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, and John Gielgud.

The life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience resulted in Indian independence and inspired similar movements across the globe, is chronicled in this film that begins when the then lawyer is thrown off a South African train for being in a whites-only compartment and concludes with his assassination and funeral in 1948. The film won eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for Kingsley and Best Picture.

Bird (1988)

Starring Forest Whitaker as jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker; with Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker, and Samuel E. Wright.

The troubled life and career of renowned jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker takes center stage in this film, which won an Academy Award for Best Sound.

Lean on Me (1989)

Starring Morgan Freeman as principal Joe Clark; with Beverly Todd, Robert Guillaume, and Alan North.

Dedicated but tyrannical school principal Joe Clark is tasked with improving a decaying inner-city school and the lives of its students.

Malcolm X (1992)

Starring Denzel Washington as Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X; with Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, and Al Freeman Jr.

This biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader chronicles his evolution from small-time gangster to Nation of Islam minister. Washington was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading role.

What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993)

Starring Angela Bassett as singer and performer Tina Turner; with Laurence Fishburne, Vanessa Bell Calloway, and Jenifer Lewis.

An account of performer Tina Turner’s rise to stardom and how she gained the courage to break free from her abusive husband, Ike Turner. Bassett and Fishburne were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role, respectively.

The Hurricane (1999)

Starring Denzel Washington as boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter; with Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger, and Liev Schreiber.

Boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter had been wrongly imprisoned for murder, and this film chronicles the story of those in his corner during the fight of his life to prove his innocence. Washington was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Ali (2001)

Starring Will Smith as boxer Muhammad Ali; with Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, and Mario Van Peebles.

Muhammad Ali becomes the world’s most recognizable athlete after winning heavyweight championship of the world, converting to Islam, and refusing to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Smith and Voight were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively.

Ray (2004)

Starring Jamie Foxx as singer Ray Charles; with Regina King, Kerry Washington, and Clifton Powell.

The story follows of the life and career of legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles—from his humble beginnings in the South, where he went blind at age seven, to his meteoric rise to stardom during the 1950s and 1960s. Foxx earned an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his spot-on portrayal of Charles.

American Gangster (2007)

Starring Denzel Washington as drug dealer Frank Lucas; with Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, and Ruby Dee.

In gritty 1970s New York City, a detective works to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas, a heroin kingpin who amassed a fortune smuggling the drug into the country from the Far East.

Lincoln (2012)


Starring Daniel Day Lewis as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln; with Sally Field, David Strathairn, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

With his nation in the final throes of a brutal, years-long Civil War, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and in the halls of Congress, as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves. Day Lewis’s portrayal of the beleaguered president earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Starring Idris Elba as revolutionary leader Nelson Mandela; with Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, and Riaad Moosa.

A chronicle of the life of anti-apartheid legend Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, this film recounts the revolutionary’s childhood in a rural village, activity as a lawyer for the African National Congress, 27-year imprisonment, and inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as abolitionist and author Solomon Northup; with Dwight Henry, Dickie Gravois, Bryan Batt, and Lupita Nyong’o.

In the antebellum U.S., Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for Nyong’o and Best Picture.

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