10 Biopics On Black Musicians Because Elvis Presley Was A Culture Vulture
Elvis arrived on HBO Max on September 2 for your streaming pleasure. However, if you’d like insight into some of the music the dubbed “King of Rock ’n Roll” gentrified and did not credit, here are 10 biopics about Black musicians that you can stream or rent today.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
This 2021 biopic stars Andra Day as the iconic blues singer Billie Holiday. Based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, this film follows the singer’s troubles with the FBI and the press after releasing her song, “Strange Fruit.” You can stream The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu.
Bonus: Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Named after her hit single, Respect celebrates the vocal prowess of Aretha Franklin. Grammy-winning singer Jennifer Hudson pays her respects in portraying the late Queen of Soul in this biopic musical alongside fellow Grammy-winning singer/actress Mary J. Blige, who plays the musician Dinah Washington. This star-studded biopic is available for streaming on either Philo or the Roku Channel.
Get On Up (2014)
I’d be remiss to mention the Queen of Soul without giving my dues to the Godfather, James Brown. Get On Up is a Netflix original biopic that features the late Chadwick Boseman, a legend in his own right, as the untouchable musician. The movie encompasses the highs and lows of the Black entertainer, from his sold-out arenas to his perm, with just the right level of authenticity and dramatization. I suggest you watch Get On Up on Netflix right now.
Ray Charles was arguably one of the first American idols, so it’s only suitable that the biopic about the incredibly talented Ray Charles is showcased on this list. Jamie Foxx earned an Oscar for his uncanny portrayal of the phenom in this biopic that follows the musician’s childhood and discovery. You can stream Ray on Prime Video or Hulu.
Miles Ahead (2015)
Don Cheadle makes his directorial debut and stars as the musician himself in this biopic about blues and jazz pioneer Miles Davis. Like most biopics, Miles Ahead portrays Miles Davis’s genius with just as much focus and truth as his shortcomings. It serves as a cautionary tale on ego and addiction while celebrating his effortless knack for music. Miles Ahead is available for streaming on HBO Max.
Elvis Presley sadly passed before hearing the angelic voice of the icon that was Whitney Houston. Not to be confused with the 2018 documentary with the same title and subject, Whitney (2015) celebrates the life of the Black singer. The unfortunate truth is that despite her immense talent and success, Houston’s life was very troublesome and cut too short, and the biopic doesn’t shy from this. Yaya DaCosta boldly takes on the role of the singer opposite of Arlen Escarpeta, who plays Houston’s abusive partner, Bobby Brown. You can stream Whitney on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube.
As its title suggests, Bessie is a biopic on the famed Harlem Renaissance blues singer Bessie Smith. The film follows Bessie’s youth and the road to stardom as she sings her heart out to anyone willing to listen. Queen Latifah shines in this role, and her performance is only bolstered by the equally excellent performances by costars Mo’Nique and Mike Epps. Bessie is available for streaming on HBO Max or Hulu.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Named after their debut album, Straight Outta Compton documents the assembly and disassembly of ultimate rap group NWA against the backdrop of America’s late 20th-century race relations. Elvis wasn’t around to gentrify the cultural revolutionaries’ musicality for the white masses, something I’m very grateful for. Still, Director F. Gary Gray has no issue depicting the dual-sided racism and idolization the rappers often faced from their white listeners. Straight Outta Compton is not streaming but is available for rent everywhere.
There’s something to be said about Anthony Mackie playing legendary rapper Tupac Shakur after playing the one dude Eminem beat in a rap battle at the end of 8 Mile. All jokes aside, Notorious celebrates the bars and life of the undisputed Notorious B.I.G. Jamal Woolard takes on the titular role alongside Naturi Naughton as Lil Kim and Angela Basset as his mother. You can stream Notorious on the Roku Channel or Prime Video.
CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (2013)
We mustn’t forget that Keke Palmer played Chilli in this TLC biopic. Directed by Charles Stone III, this fan-favourite biopic explores the origins and fast-tracked career of the all-female supergroup. Palmer stars opposite Niatia “Lil Mama” Kirkland as Left Eye and Drew Sidora as T-Boz. CrazySexyCool is available for streaming on BET+ and for purchase on Apple TV.
It’s perfectly fine to like Elvis’s music and his biopic, but it’s essential to acknowledge the Black people that paved the way—as they have done for almost every American icon. Rock ’n roll is a growing genre that people of all shades and creeds enjoy, and it cannot be defined or championed by just one rock star. So pick your favourite rockstar, trace the roots of their sounds, and thank Black people for it.