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The challenges of mastering the art of the biopic

Philip Ng stars as Bruce Lee in the biopic
Philip Ng stars as Bruce Lee in the biopic "Birth of the Dragon."
Screenshot from trailer, as seen on YouTube

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One of the more highly-anticipated film releases this week is the Bruce Lee biopic “Birth of the Dragon.”

Set in 1960s San Francisco, it’s inspired by true events from Lee’s life: opening a martial arts school in the Bay Area, his struggle between his Chinese heritage and his passion as he faces pressure from the Chinese community to stop teaching kung fu to non-Chinese, and the fulcrum of the entire film - the legendary fight between Lee and Wong Jack Man, master of the Shaolin Temple - the details of which are shrouded in mystery to this day.

On the surface, it might seem like a biopic would be one of the easier genres to pull off on the big screen. Being based on a real person means the characters and story are already written. But for as many films like “Ray,” “Gandhi,” “Lincoln” and “The Social Network” that have been lauded and even awarded, there are others like “The Fifth Estate,” in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, or the Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me,” which produced less-than-impressive results at the box office. Filmmakers have said it’s a challenge of both casting and storytelling. Directors must find the exact right person for the leading role, someone who doesn’t just embody the spirit of the protagonist, but can capture the person’s idiosyncrasies  and quirks and transform him or herself into that person. Others say the struggle is finding the right angle which captures the essence of the person being depicted without trying to cover every single detail of his or her life.

What differentiates the worthy biopics from the bad bunch? Which biopics stand out to you as the best of all time? Call us at 866-893-5722.


Amy Nicholson, film critic for KPCC and host of The Canon; she tweets @TheAmyNicholson

Wade Major, film critic for KPCC and host for IGN’s

Charles Solomon, film critic for KPCC, Animation Scoop and Animation Magazine