Film

Empowering Portrayals: 10 Inspiring Women's Biopics

By Sera | Nov 10, 2023

Biopics have always been a way to visually chronicle the lives of (famous) and iconic people, In this article we discuss ten biopics based on the lives of some very outstanding and diverse women that we think you will enjoy and also learn from.

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Saint-Omer (2022) - The French Court Case of Fabienne Kabou

In Saint-Omer, documentary filmmaker Alice Diop enters her debut narrative feature film with a retelling of the trial of Fabienne Kabou, which she witnessed in June 2016. Fabienne Kabou is a Senegalese-French woman who was convicted of the murder of her 15-month-old daughter whom she left to drown at a beach in Berck. 

In Diop's legal drama, Rama, a pregnant young novelist who represents Diop herself, travels from Paris to Saint-Omer to witness the trial of Laurence Coly who represents Kabou, and is accused and tried for the same crime. 

Rama planned to write a modern-day retelling of the Greek mythology Medea from her observations of the trial but is suddenly met with a personal connection she feels towards Coly after she learns more about her story during the trial. 

This pushes Rama to begin to worry about her own life and the type of mother she would be to her unborn child.

 

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On the Basis of Sex (2018) - Ruth Bader Ginsburg

On the Basis of Sex is a legal drama starring Felicity Jones, based on the early life and career of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1993 until she died in 2020, she was the second woman ever to serve in that position. 

While Ginsburg’s early career was marked by numerous outstanding occurrences, the film's focal point is the Moritz v. Commissioner tax law case that helped Ruth find her voice as a lawyer and challenged several of America’s (gender) sex-based laws to date. 

Under the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg made her debut appearance in a courtroom to represent Mr Charles Mortiz in a case that challenged section 214 of the Internal Revenue Code of the United States, which limited tax deduction to a “woman, widower or divorcèe, or a husband whose wife was incapacitated” with an appeal that her client had been discriminated against based on sex, she saw in the case an opportunity to set the precedent that if the law unfairly discriminated a man on the bases of sex, that her case could be used to challenge laws that discriminated against women on the same basis. 

The film chronicles the entire run of the trial and its outcome within the backdrop of Ginsburg’s personal life and rocky start into the Law career.

Much of Ginsburg’s career was dedicated to advocating for women’s rights and gender equality.

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Self Made (2020) - Madam C.J Walker

Self Made is a Netflix mini-series, starring Octavia Spencer, that tells the story of Sarah Walker, famously known as Madam C.J Walker, an African American washerwoman who built the pioneer black hair care and beauty empire and became the first black self-made millionaire. Amidst racial and gender injustices, business rivalries, and a rocky personal life, Madam C.J Walker built something that many African Americans benefited from, she was also known for philanthropy and activism, and she made numerous donations to the cause of Black freedom. 

The Netflix series is based on the biography  On Her Own Ground, written by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.

 

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I, Tonya (2017) - Tonya Harding

Starring Margot Robbie, I, Tonya, is a mockumentary-style sports biopic loosely based on actual events surrounding the life and career of American figure skater Tonya Harding and her affiliation in the 1994 assault of her rival Nancy Kerrigan. 

The film builds its plot around interviews of Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillory and emphasises that its premise is left up to the audience to decide.

At age four, Harding’s Mother forces her into ice skating and soon, she is taken out of school as a teenager to pursue a career in the sports full time, her mother’s abusive nature is the major drive of her career. At 15, she meets an 18-year-old Jeff Gillooly and they get married, Jeff is also abusive towards Tonya. 

Through the abuse and Tonya’s socio-economic class struggles that somehow pose a challenge in her career, she manages to have a great career, leaving her mom and abusive husband behind until she receives a major setback leading up to the 1994 Olympics. As her mother refuses to help her, Tonya has to seek help from Jeff. 

Jeff’s bright idea to help her entails sabotaging her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, he hires some men to break her knee, leaving her unable to compete.

As Tonia finally qualifies for the Olympics, to clear her name, she reports Jeff to the police and leaves him for good, in his trial he implicates Tonya, but she does not go to jail but is banned from the sport for life, whether Harding was complicit to the attack remains unclear till date, but the entire debacle marked the end of her career.

 

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Coco Before Chanel (2009) - Coco Chanel

Coco Before Chanel is a soulful biopic, starring Audrey Tautou, that details the early life of renowned French designer and fashion powerhouse, Coco Chanel. 

After the death of their mother, Gabrielle Chanel and her sister are abandoned in an orphanage by their father. 

Many years later, the sisters are working at a bar, Gabrielle as a seamstress for performers by day and a cabaret singer by night, it is at this bar that a wealthy aristocrat named Balsan comes into her life. Balsan nicknames her Coco and soon she leaves the city for his countryside estate, riding horses and mingling with the wealthy in his inner circle. 

Through this connection, Gabrielle-Coco begins designing dresses and hats for the wealthy and famous women in Balsan’s circle, her designs defy societal norms of the times and soon a businessman called Arthur Capel decides to invest in her talent, kickstarting her journey that spanned decades, leaving footprints in the sands of time in the fashion world, even to this day.

 

Julie and Julia

Julie & Julia (2009) - Julie Powell & Julia Childs

Starring Meryl Streep as renowned Chef Julia Childs, who is credited with bringing French cuisine to the American public,  and Amy Adams as author and popular food blogger Julie Powell, whose early 2000s blog garnered a lot of attention during her attempt to cook all 524 recipes from Julia Childs critically acclaimed cookbook, in 365 days.

Julie & Julia highlights two women’s passion for food across timelines and how it served them both as a lifeline and a source of comfort.

Julia Childs moves to Paris with her diplomat husband in the 1950s and turns to French cuisine to pass her time there, she enrolls in Le Cordon Bleu, and as the only woman in her class, she is met with a lot of scepticism. 

By 1961, Julia takes French cuisine to American housewives in her debut cookbook; Mastering the Art of French cooking.

While working for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp’s call centre, Julie Powell unsatisfied with her life decides to do something she enjoys. In August 2002, she created the Julie/Julia project on her blog, featured in Salon. It is through this project that Julie documents her attempts to try Julia’s recipes, and in 2005, she released a book based on the project titled, Julie & Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.

The film goes between flashbacks of both the past and present times in the lives of both women.

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Frida (2002) - Frida Kahlo

Frida is an Academic Award-nominated portrayal of the public and personal life of renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek.

In 1925, at the age of 18, Frida Kahlo gets into a traumatic accident that plagues her for the rest of her life. During her convalescence period, bedridden and unable to walk, her father decides to lift her spirits by bringing her a canvas to paint on, this marks the beginning of her surrealist career celebrated today.

When Kahlo gets better, she visits muralist Diego Rivera to get an honest opinion on her paintings and soon they fall into an unconventional marriage that is a constant backdrop for her personal life throughout the film. 

Each scene is punctuated with Kahlo’s real-life paintings as the plot explores her life as an artist between Mexico and America, betrayals, affairs, important artistic projects, etc.

The film ends with Kahlo, now bedridden with an amputated leg and bronchopneumonia, as she is taken in her bed to her first solo exhibition in her native country in 1953.

 

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Mary Kom (2014) - Mangte Chungeijang Kom (Mary Kom)

Mary Kom is a 2014 Indian-Hindu sports biopic starring Priyanka Chopra as renowned boxer Mangte Chungeijang Kom a.k.a Mary Kom.

The film depicts Kom’s journey to becoming a boxer and her numerous victories up until her major victory at the 2008 World Boxing Championship. Despite her father’s approval, Kom takes an interest in boxing at an early age and soon she finds a coach to train her. After winning a state-level championship, her aspiration is finally made known to her father who asks her to choose between him and the sport. 

Kom chooses boxing and is soon estranged from her father until he reconciles with her after her victory in the 2002 Women’s World Amateur Boxing Championship. 

She soon gets married, gives birth to twins, tries for a normal life, and gives up her career, but realises she deserves a better life and is encouraged by her husband to get back into the sport again. During her training and victory in the 2008 World Boxing Championship, she was met with her greatest setback. Overcoming this led to her being nicknamed “Magnificent Mary” and earned her her place as one of India’s top boxers to date.

 

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Dessert Flower (2009) - Waris Dirie

The critically acclaimed German biopic is based on Somali-born model Waris Dirie’s autobiography titled Dessert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad.

The film chronicles Waris's life from a normadic childhood to a new life and career as a model in a different country far away from home. 

Waris who at the age of five became a victim of female genital mutilation and its life-long consequences, escaped an arranged marriage later in her life by fleeing her native village in Somalia and soon moved in with relations in London. While working at McDonald’s, she was discovered by fashion photographer Terence Donovan and continued her modelling career until she attained supermodel status. 

Shortly after the release of her autobiography, she became a UN ambassador for the abolition of Female Genital mutilation and continues to advocate against it and provide aid to victims to date.

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Lovelace (2013) - Linda Lovelace

Lovelace is a biopic film centred on the life of porn actress Linda Lovelace, starring Amanda Seyfried.

At the forefront of the golden age of porn, Linda Lovelace stars in Deep Throat, a 1972 pornographic film that hallmarked the beginning of the era, but behind the success of the film and the fame it brought for Linda lies a truly sad story that forms the plot of the film, chronicling Linda’s life from age 21-32.

At age 21, Linda catches the attention of a man called Chuck Taylor, after Linda is vulnerable about her situation with her parents who tricked her into giving up her baby for adoption, they develop a troubling relationship. Chuck who is much older than Linda begins to teach her how to perform sexual acts that at first seem harmless until after they get married, he persuades her to become a porn actress to make ends meet. After Deep Throat becomes a huge hit, Linda’s life changes. Behind her newfound fame, Chuck is violent towards her, physically and sexually abusing her and forcing her into prostitution. The breaking point in their marriage comes when Chuck tries to persuade Linda to do another pornographic film, when she refuses, he forces her to participate in a gang bang at a club and tries to suffocate her when she resists. 

This marked the end of their marriage and Linda’s career as a porn actress.