I recently read a book about a female spy during World War I, and when I finished, I wondered why I’d never heard of her. Then, I thought about how there are approximately three movies about Charles Manson in production, and I can’t help but wonder why that guy gets three movies while so many notable women in history aren’t even acknowledged. As March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day, I have compiled a list of women who deserve to have biopics made about them.
In The Post, Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham, the first female publisher of a major US newspaper (The Washington Post). Great! Now studios should expand on this idea by making a movie about Nellie Bly. Nellie was serving as the foreign correspondent for the Pittsburgh Dispatch at 21, writing about the dictatorial government in Mexico. Later, as a writer for the New York World, she went undercover at an asylum to report on the brutal conditions. Oh, yeah, she also circumnavigated the globe and was an inventor, as well as one of the country’s leading female industrialists. Seriously, how is there not yet a movie about Nellie Bly?
Hidden Figures is the story of three black women working at NASA and stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. This was an amazing film, so let’s get some more movies about female scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. May I suggest Ada Lovelace, largely considered to be the world’s first computer programmer…in the 1840s? Or astronaut and chemical engineer Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space? Or how about Jane Goodall, for crying out loud? There’s also Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to get a degree in Western medicine – and the first Hindu woman in the United States (supposedly). Rita Levi-Montalcini was a Jewish neuroscientist in fascist Italy who was forbidden from working at university and set up a secret lab in her bedroom. She won the Nobel Prize.
With all the hubbub about a Black Widow movie, and Jennifer Lawrence’s recent film Red Sparrow, how about some movies about actual female spies? Spies like Sarah Aaronsohn, a Jewish woman in Palestine who spied on the Ottomans for the British? (Sarah, by the way, is the subject of the book I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The book is called The Woman Who Fought an Empire.) If not Sarah, what about Phyllis Latour Doyle, who parachuted into Nazi-occupied France in 1944 and relayed over 135 messages before the end of the war? Nancy Wake was a resistance spy so hated by the Germans that at one point she was their most wanted person with a price on her head of 5 million francs. We have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of World War II movies, but where are all the women? We didn’t disappear during the war.
Not just spies, either. In The Zookeeper’s Wife, Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, who along with her husband hid hundreds of Jews in their Warsaw zoo during World War II. In that vein, I would love to see a movie about Parisian rebel Simone Segouin, who captured 25 Nazis and killed an unknown number. Hannie Schaft already has a biopic, but she needs another one. In the Netherlands, Hannie aided people fleeing the Nazis. She also committed acts of sabotage and even a couple of assassinations. Her last words were, “I shoot better than you.” What about Mariya Oktyabrskaya, who sold all of her belongings to buy a tank and kill Nazis after her husband was killed? Manuela Sáenz y Aizpuru was a revolutionary hero in South America who fought for women’s rights and prevented an assassination attempt against Simon Bolivar. And for a little something different, how about a film honoring Mary Edwards Walker, a surgeon during the US Civil War, the first and only woman to win the Medal of Honor? For something a little more recent, let’s have a film about the Gulabi Gang, a group of activists in India who fight against domestic abuse and campaign for ending child marriage.
There are so many movies about British royals. Hollywood was on the right track with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Belle in that we got a film about somebody different. And not that Elizabeth and Young Victoria aren’t great films, but why can’t we branch out to other countries for a change? Instead of yet another movie about Elizabeth I, how about we get a film about Yaa Asantewa, Queen of Ghana, who fought against British colonialism until she was captured and sent into exile? There is already a biopic about Raziya Sultana, the only woman to rule the Delhi Sultanate, but there could be more. Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem personally led the defense of the city when Saladin attacked in 1187 during the Crusades. How about some elected officials? Women like Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth (and only female) Prime Minister? Or Benazir Bhutto, the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan and the first woman to serve as the democratically elected leader of a Muslim state? She was assassinated in 2005. Or, if Hollywood insists on yet another movie about Elizabeth I, how about one about her meeting with Grace O’Malley? …Only instead it will just be about Grace.
The live-action Mulan film from Disney has been delayed, and that’s sad, because I’m really looking forward to it (provided they, you know, stick Shang back in there and don’t take out the songs, like they’re apparently planning). But you don’t need to look to myths and folk tales to find stories of women warriors. History is full of them. Women like Nakano Takeko, the only known female samurai in Japanese history, who led an all-female group during the Battle of Aizu in the Boshin War. Ching Shih, a former prostitute, took over her husband’s pirate fleet after his death. She is considered one of the most successful pirates in history. Let’s have a film about Lozen, an Apache warrior who fought alongside Geronimo and died a prisoner of war. Trieu Thi Trinh is called the Vietnamese Joan of Arc. She was able to briefly resist Chinese occupation and today there are many cities in Vietnam with streets named after her.
Many women in Hollywood go unnoticed. Just this past Sunday, at the 90th Academy Awards, we had the first woman nominee for cinematography (Rachel Morrison, for Mudbound – she did not win). About 50% of the films written in the silent-film era were penned by women; women like Lorna Moon, who wrote nine scripts in a six-year period. Let’s have a film about multi-threat Marion E. Wong, who was a company director, costume designer, director, actress, producer, music performer and screenwriter. How about Angela Morley, an Emmy-winning composer and the first openly trans person to be nominated for an Oscar? I want a movie about Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer in silhouette animation who made over 40 films in her career. Her film The Adventures of Prince Achmen is the oldest surviving animated film in history.
Films like Nina (about Nina Simone) and Frida (Frida Kahlo) are a great start, but it’s time to start seeing biopics about other entertainers. Let’s have a movie about Sudha Chandran, who lost a leg at age 16 and went on to become an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer. We’ve had movies about Oscar Wilde and John Keats, but let’s have more movies like Becoming Jane. Why aren’t there more films about Emily Dickinson? Or Simone de Beauvoir?
There are many famous women who have secret (or not-so-secret, but just not well known) badass pasts. Women like Josephine Baker, who in addition to being a dancer and actress was also a pilot in the Women’s Auxiliary of the Free French Air Force. She smuggled secret messages in her music. Audrey Hepburn, known primarily for being an actress and style icon, held secret ballet recitals in the Netherlands in World War II and gave the money to the Dutch Resistance. Her experiences during the war led to her humanitarian work with UNICEF later in her life. She deserves more than a bad made-for-TV movie. Actress Hedy Lamarr helped invent spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology, without which we would not have bluetooth or wi-fi.
With so many prominent female athletes, why don’t we see more biopics about them? Battle of the Sexes put Billie Jean King on the big screen, but what about Serena Williams, for crying out loud? She holds the most Grand Slam titles among active players, and she won the Australian Open while pregnant. I, Tonya was a good movie, but I want to see a film about French figure skater Surya Bonaly, the only Olympic figure skater to land a backflip on one skate, which she did at the 1998 Nagano Olympics (her third). Everyone loves Cool Runnings, and we’ve got a similar story with the 2018 Nigerian bobsled team, the first to qualify from Africa.
With the success of movies like Get Out, Mudbound, and Black Panther, Hollywood seems to finally be realizing that black people can lead a film. And while biopics about historical figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jackie Robinson are important, there are so many unappreciated black women in history. Women like Bessie Stringfield, the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami”, the first black woman to ride across the US solo. She performed motorcycle stunts in carnival shows to earn money and served as a civilian courier in the Army during World War II. Clara Belle Williams was the first black graduate of New Mexico State University. She had to take notes from the hallway. The NMSU English department building is now named after her. How about civil rights and women’s rights activist Dorothy Height, who has both a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal? Lucy Terry was a slave whose poem “Bars Fight” is the oldest known work of literature by a black American. Can we get a movie about entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist Madame CJ Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America and one of the wealthiest black women in the country?
This is far from a comprehensive list. If we were to sit here and try and list all of the women who deserve biopics, we would be here forever. All I’m saying is that, maybe, instead of making yet another movie about Charles Manson, or Winston Churchill, let’s have a film about a badass woman in history who hasn’t gotten her due yet. Because as you can see, there are a lot of them. You have an endless supply of women who have been largely forgotten by history whose stories would make fantastic movies. You just have to do it.
My knowledge of cinema is limited, so if films already exist about any of the women on this list (that I haven’t already indicated), please do let me know, so I can try and watch them! Also, if you have any favorite biopics about glorious ladies in history, let me know about those, too! And if there is a woman you want to add, tell us all about her in the comments!
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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