Updated: Dec 11, 2020
“Story is the main character’s emotional journey of self-discovery and truth, and ultimate transformation.” — Jack Epps, Jr., Screenwriting is Rewriting.
Many movies have been made out of factual stories; or better still made from a combination of facts and fiction. The combination usually called faction may be obvious or hidden. All the same factual movie stories would usually get a resounding audience appreciation, if they inspire, astound and revive memories.
Many motivating true-life stories or events almost always need reinvention. This could be in terms of their basic themes, plot elements and characterization, with’…main character’s emotional journey of self-discovery and truth, and ultimate transformation.” And many audience members have been so entertained and transformed over the course of movie stories. Audiences are either entertained or experience overwhelming life changing lessons from exaggerated conflicts. It is left for the filmmaker to understand what to add or subtract to provide his or her audience the desired entertainment.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s true-to-life or near-true-to-life movies gained audiences across genres. In Nigeria, Nollywood would from the popularity of Living in Bondage(1992/1993) till date invariably still produce ‘non-fiction’ or perhaps fictionized hearsays. Such ‘hearsays,’ some claim are reflections of true-life events. To that extent movies so produced may hardly stress high concept ideas, which screenwriters, producers and directors usually achieve through hyperbolism or exaggeration of story elements.
However, it is a common Hollywood ploy to use taglines like ‘true story’ or ‘based on true events,’ as an advertising or marketing tool to attract gullible film audiences. It is Hollywood’s usual practice of overstatement, and truth-bending to excite and charm movie audiences. To that extent creative alterations of true-life events by Nollywood to make emotional or life altering movies have become inevitable. Yes, if the Nigerian film industry must build on current increasing demand for African flicks by Netflix, indeed also expected of Apple or Amazon.
12 Years a Slave(2013) reveals notable historic accuracy and creative quality as a biopic drama. It has a simple factual provocation of emotions! In 1841 Solomon Northup, a New York State free-born negro got kidnapped in Washington D.C and sold into slavery.
As a ‘notable historic accuracy’ 12 Years a Slave does not have to contain exact dialogues from its adapted novel or book form. Therefore its ‘creative quality,’ may have come from the screenwriters teaming with the Producer and Director to take liberties at reinforcing its emotional richness; during development.
Such audience emotional connection was grounded earlier in ‘The Life of William Grimes,’ first novel-length life history of a fugitive American slave. The autobiography penned by escapee slave William Grimes in 1825 to earn $500 to purchase freedom from his previous enslaver, impacts via 12 Years a Slave, the revelation of the gruesomeness of slavery to the 21st Century audience. More so that ongoing modern slavery reconnects memories of Trans-Atlantic slavery not only with Afro-America; but the world over.
This also applies to another biopic, Harriet (2019) with Nigerian-British lead character Cynthia Erivo. It is an amazing, retelling of a risky escape from the hands of Maryland slave owners in 1849. She maintained a fearless and risky, but celebrated continuous smuggling of family members among others across US border into freedom in Canadian, through an ‘Underground Railroad.’ Such courageous, clever and firm action that freed hundreds of slaves is cleverly exaggerated with passing and fitting flashbacks of hurtful slavery.
The very words of Harriet Tubman, named Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, to her biographer, Sarah Bradford, after crossing the Pennsylvania state boundary line in September 1849 sums it! “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
There is no doubt such a statement of the feat of attaining a new life from the horrors of slavery provokes audience emotional connection. More so Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard(screenwriters)-director (Kasi Lemmons)’s use of story and cinematic elements supplies food to our imaginations.
Lemmons brings to us the Harriet’s risky night trips on foot, plus escape montage scenarios balanced with scares during stops and searches by white officials. He also avoids violence and blood-letting, but prefers to feminize such a strong character, whose stubborn childhood probably drove her spirit to seek freedom from servitude. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/harriet-movie-review-2019
This is a strong appeal to the younger and equally feministic 21st century generation; especially females who will want to wear Harriet’s escape-shoes from all manners of oppression today. And there is no gain-saying how Erivo’s gritty outlook depicts Harriet or Minty from stubborn girlhood into a savior womanhood- a freedom fighter.
12 Years a Slave won a true-life biopic narrative drama starring Nigerian-British, Chinwetel Ejiofor won three Oscars; bagged another 235 winnings and gained 326 nominations on a budget of $20–22 million; gained box office returns of $187.7 million. Meanwhile Harriet, on a production budget of budget of $17 million grossed $43.3 million worldwide. And it just goes on that there is no movie that hits our emotional frequency like ones that imitate true-life events.