Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42
The last time the story of Jackie Robinson — the first African-American major league baseball player to break the color barrier — was told on the big screen, it was 1950, and Robinson played himself. The delay was due largely to Robinson’s widow Rachel holding onto her husband’s life rights until she found a project she felt would do her husband’s story justice. That film, 42, finally arrives in theaters this Friday, this time with newcomer Chadwick Boseman playing Robinson, and Harrison Ford as the man who hired him, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey.
Biopics are notoriously difficult to get right — human lives, even celebrated ones, rarely unfold with the kind of dramatic rise and fall that best fits a feature film. Still, a biographic motion picture, when done well, can convey the feeling of a person’s life far more effectively than a history textbook. Which makes the fact that the following figures have never received a definitive feature film or major TV movie about their lives, whether in its totality or just a discrete-if-potent chapter, all the more astonishing.
3. Michael Jordan
More than any other athlete alive today, Jordan established the model the modern sports mega-star: Virtuosic in the game, ubiquitous in the culture, and enigmatic in every other respect. What’s more, Jordan is enough of a public figure that, like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, a well-researched screenplay could navigate around the tricky issue of “life rights.”
So why no movie? Unlike Zuckerberg, Jordan’s reputation and likeness are bound up with the interests of several major corporations — Nike, McDonalds, Wheaties, Gatorade, Hanes, to name just a few. Unless the movie was an outright hagiography — which would make it about as boring as Jordan’s studiously practiced public persona — it could be a nightmare attempting to secure the rights to use all those corporate logos as the filmmakers saw fit. Unless they borrowed a tactic from Orson Welles and changed just enough details to get around even these issues.
Title: The Competitor
It’s kind of like… Citizen Kane, but with basketball. And baseball. And golf.
Starring: Will Smith as the enigmatic basketball superstar Nick Jackson, and Ryan Gosling as the striving sports reporter determined to learn his story.
4. Sally Ride
She’s the first American woman ever in space, the youngest American ever in space, and the first (known) gay person ever in space. C’mon, this has Oscar bait written all over it.
So why no movie? Unlike Jordan, Ride remained fiercely private — right up until her death from cancer last year, she never discussed in public the fact that she was a lesbian. To be able to do her story justice, any filmmaker would have to get permission from her family first. Now that she has passed away, one can only hope her story can be told.
Title: She’s Got a Ticket to Ride
It’s kind of like… The Right Stuff, but with lady parts.
Starring: Julianne Moore as Sally Ride
5. Edith Wilson
In March 1915, Edith Bolling Galt, a widow of seven years, met President Woodrow Wilson, himself a widower soon after moving into the Oval Office. Their romance captivated the nation — and caused Washington to whisper about the Widow Galt’s true intentions. They married later that year, and by all reports, the new First Lady took to her public role rather well. But in 1919, her husband of just four years suffered such a debilitating stroke that many historians have concluded he was unfit to remain president — a fact Wilson’s wife and physicians worked tirelessly to keep not only from the American public, but from the vice president and the cabinet. Instead, the First Lady made a drastic, historic decision to manage the presidency in her husband’s stead, taking only the most vital paperwork to him for his signature.
Romance! Intrigue! Subterfuge! C’mon, Hollywood, what more do you want?
So why no movie? Until Downton Abbey captivated the nation, the early 20th century was never particularly seen as a hip and exciting time. Also, there is no delicate way to put this: Edith Wilson was not a thin woman, and I think we’re all aware of Hollywood’s prejudice against greenlighting movies about non-thin women that aren’t comedies starring Melissa McCarthy.
Title: Mrs. President
It’s kind of like… The American President meets The West Wing meets Bridesmaids.
Starring: Melissa McCarthy as Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, Robert Downey Jr. as the dashing President Woodrow Wilson, and Will Ferrell as the nefarious Vice President Thomas Marshall.
6. James Buchanan
Yes, the man who failed to prevent the secession of the South prior to the Civil War is largely regarded as one of the worst U.S. presidents ever, if not the worst outright. But could Buchanan’s failures as a president be traced to a broken heart? The only U.S. president to never marry, Buchanan’s most lasting relationship was with a man, the rather dashing William R. King. The two lived together for over a decade while both were in Congress, and when King left in 1844 to become the U.S. minister to France, Buchanan famously wrote in a letter:
“I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”
King died in 1853, after he was elected vice president on the ticket with Franklin Pierce. Buchanan never did find either another gentleman companion, or an old maid, to keep him company when he succeeded Pierce in the White House. If Buchanan was America’s first gay president, it is one of the most poignant, and tragic, love stories ever to haunt the Oval Office.
So why no movie? Hollywood doesn’t bother to make far more mainstream movies with gay characters, so why would it make one about a terrible president many ticket buyers have barely heard of? Unless, that is, a major movie star with a reputation for disappearing into his roles took a liking to the idea of playing this particularly beleaguered Commander-in-Chief.
Title: My Better Half
It’s kind of like… Milk meets Brokeback Mountain, but with waistcoats and an inability to resolve the problem of American slavery.
Starring: Johnny Depp as James Buchanan, and Michael Fassbender as William R. King
7. Sojourner Truth
Before she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and became a pioneer of both abolition and women’s rights, Isabella Baumfree took a New York white man to court after he had illegally sold her young son to another white man in Alabama. She won her case — in 1828.
So why no movie? It is, sadly, quite simple: American cinema has been woefully bereft of quality depictions of American slavery, let alone films with an African American female lead. But off the recent box office success of both Django Unchained and Lincoln, perhaps it’s time to reconsider those outdated notions, hmm?
Title: Ain’t I A Woman
It’s kind of like… Lincoln meets Amistad meets a pinch of The Iron Lady.
Starring: Kerry Washington as Sojourner Truth, thinking back on the trial that won back her son as she prepares for her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech.