If Hollywood has taught us anything about historical biopics, it is this: The actor or actress cast for the lead role holds the keys to either a successful homage or a forgettable ploy. None of us took the Steve Jobs biopic seriously because well, Ashton Kutcher was given the reins. There is a reason why all of us swooned about Daniel Day Louis in Lincoln. Meryl Streep was excellent as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Jamie Foxx nailed (blind swaying and all) Ray Charles in Ray. Julianne Moore behaved more like Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin in Game Change. Could you imagine Spike Lee’s rendition of Malcolm X without Denzel Washington?
No matter the story, the actor or actress chosen matters greatly. Looks matter and you have to resemble (in one way or another) the historical persona you are exhibiting. But more importantly, you have to master the mannerisms, capture the conscience, and display the demeanor of the character you are portraying.
Recently, actor Forest Whitaker was tabbed to play General Colin Powell in a story that will focus on the former secretary of state’s case to the United Nations for the war in Iraq and the supposed “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction. Whitaker already has two historical biopics on his resume: Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and Cecil Gaines in The Butler. Both roles were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Both films received rather positive reviews, but even the critics of the story could not question the way in which Whitaker gave life to the characters.
The film about General Powell could become the most important piece of theater about the war in Iraq. The sole reason why the U.S. and the international community suddenly focused on the regime of Saddam Hussein (instead of those responsible for 9/11) was WMDs. No one can doubt Whitaker’s acting prowess and certainly no one can doubt Powell’s place in history. But just as the actors and actresses mentioned above have solidified their respective historical figures' places in the Hollywood pantheon (for better or for worse), a film can change the public’s perception and memory of a historical figure, bring new discussions to light, and most importantly, add honor or notoriety to the legacy of a person.
Regardless of how the film chooses to portray General Powell, audiences will probably judge the film based on the scenes where Powell gives his speech to the United Nations in February 2003. The text of the speech can be found here. The case that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction, including the infamous vial of anthrax as a prop, had consequences for the U.S. that still affect us today. Ten years removed from Powell’s speech, Iraq is still not a stable, autonomous nation and our economy suffered due to our involvement. If Hollywood plays its cards correctly (these days, they have not), this film will provide us with a chance to reflect on the instrumental role that Powell played in the Bush administration and the mistakes that were made leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Without Powell’s presence and speech at the UN, we would have had a very different situation on our hands.
At the end of the day, films are meant to provoke conversation. If Whitaker’s previous roles are any indication, his performance as Colin Powell should give us quite the Monday morning water-cooler discussions and beyond.