5 Black Trailblazers Who Deserve Their Own Biopics
As a historian, one of my greatest frustrations has been that historical movies featuring Black characters tend to focus on the tragedy of that person living in racist society. Far too often, Black stories are told to shake a modern finger at the past for racist behavior and actions. This is extremely saddening because Black Americans have lived interesting and diverse lives, yet we rarely see them on the silver screen. This deprives Black Americans and our children of being able to see people who look like us doing incredible things. Luckily, history has some wonderful stories for us to use.
As many studio executives may finally be asking themselves what movies they should make now that they have sent out all those tweets supporting the recent protests, I would like to present these five Black people who deserve to be the center of their own motion pictures.
Anyone who enjoys traveling abroad should have the utmost respect for Ebenezer Bassett, America's first Black diplomat. Raised in Connecticut as a free man, Bassett was an abolitionist, educator, and close friend of Frederick Douglass. His advocacy for freeing slaves became the foundation for his future work as a diplomat, being a strong advocate of human rights. When President Ulysses S. Grant was elected, he picked Bassett to be the Minister Resident to Haiti. It was not an easy posting, but Bassett's longtime work in human rights shaped how he handled a difficult case.
In the 1870s, Bassett protected General Pierre Boisrond Canal, who came to his home requesting refugee status. Giving General Canal sanctuary for five months, Bassett eventually negotiated safe passage for the general to Jamaica.
The story of protecting General Canal could be a feature-length film within itself. Bassett was a Black American hero and he exemplified humanity, intelligence, and honor. For this, he deserves a film.
Lucy Hicks Anderson
Lucy Hicks Anderson was a transgender woman born in 1886. A former chef and domestic worker, Anderson eventually became a powerful madam in Oxnard, CA, running one of the most popular brothels in town. In 1944, Anderson married her second husband, Reuben Anderson, and continued to be a welcomed socialite in her community. Things were going well for her until an outbreak of a sexually transmitted disease in Oxnard changed everything.
Under accusations that the disease started in her brothel, Anderson and her girls were required to have medical examinations. When local authorities discovered she had been born a man, they cited her marriage license as being falsified. Anderson and her husband were arrested and put on trial for perjury.
When questioned on her identity, Anderson proudly proclaimed to the court, "I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, and acted just what I am — a woman." Anderson walked from her perjury charge with 10 years on probation. However, local authorities had another curveball for the couple: Anderson had been receiving checks as the wife of a US serviceman (Rueben), something authorities successfully prosecuted her on. After serving time in prison for these charges, Anderson relocated to Los Angeles, where she lived until her passing in 1954.
A renowned chef, socialite, activist, and madam? One of those alone would make an interesting film. Combined? Phenomenal. The stories Black trans women are rarely told, and Anderson's is important. Her defiance in the face of oppression deserves to be told with the love and respect it deserves.
Want to learn more about Lucy Hicks Anderson? Check out a short film on Anderson by the YouTube channel We've Been Around.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
If you like rock and roll, you need to send a prayer of thanks to the godmother of the genre, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe grew up with music as a part of her life, and by her 20s, she was mastering a style that was born in the Black community — bringing together the sounds of jazz, blues, and gospel. Wherever Tharpe went, she was a star — and the popularity was well earned. She performed as a solo artist and occasionally with groups, even making it all the way to the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall.
After a career that stretched across the United States and Europe, Sister Mary Tharpe retired in Philadelphia, but her influence lives on in the music we love today. Her groundbreaking style would inspire many other artists, including Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and Aretha Franklin.
Her personal life was also fascinating: Tharpe lived through two marriages to men and eventually met her partner, a woman named Marie Knight, later in life. She was open about her sexuality within the industry at a time when there was no community or acceptance for queer people, especially queer Black women.
While news recently broke that British artist Yola will be playing Tharpe in upcoming Baz Luhrmann's upcoming Elvis film, this woman deserves the full spotlight and her own movie. Until then, read up on Erin White's AFROPUNK profile of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, "Queer, Black & Blue: Sister Rosetta Tharpe Is Muva of Them All."
Cathay Williams made history when she enlisted in the United States Army. Why? She was the first Black woman to do it — and she did it presenting herself as a man. According to the National Park Service, using the name "William Cathay," she signed a three-year contract and was placed in the 38th US Infantry regiment, an all-Black unit. She kept her identity secret, even surviving a case of smallpox without anyone realizing her gender. Eventually, the army discovered her secret and she was honorably discharged from service in 1868.
There aren't many movies about Black war heroines, but that is exactly what we need. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about this American hero, check out Cathy Williams: From Slave to Buffalo Soldier by Phillip Thomas Tucker, or Miguel Ortiz's essay for The Mighty, "The ex-slave who disguised herself as a man to enlist."
While James Beckwourth's life could be a wonderful film, it could also be a miniseries, because the stories surrounding him are epic. From what we know, Beckwourth was born into slavery and was the son a Virginia slave owner, although he was eventually given his freedom. In 1824, he was looking for a future and found it in the West, becoming a famous mountain man by exploring the Rocky Mountains and Wyoming. He also lived with the Absaroka (commonly referred to as Crow) people for about six years, learning their language. On the personal side, according to trapper Zenas Leonard, Beckwourth allegedly married four wives. He is also believed to have discovered a route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which is now called Beckwourth Pass.
Prior to the First Transcontinental Railroad, many travelers used it to enter California. He was also a veteran, participating in the Seminole Wars. Beckwourth's tall tales are sometimes hard to prove, but it creates a legend around him often denied to Black historical figures. We all need legends to love, and James Beckwourth's story is worthy of telling with all the fur trappings and Old West shenanigans that came with it.