Why Black Biopics Reign at Lifetime

From such global icons as Whitney Houston to lesser-known civil rights activists like Lori Jackson, the network is leading the industry in spotlighting the stories of Black women

When the idea of making a biopic about Mahalia Jackson first came up, about half the members of Lifetime’s Original Movies group hadn’t heard of the gospel legend and civil rights leader — which, for that team, was a selling point.

“ We had been talking about women who have historically made impacts that no one talks about,” says head of movies Tanya Lopez of the group’s brainstorming sessions. It was programming manager Mekita Faiye who suggested Jackson, and though her pitch was met with unfamiliarity, it wasn’t dismissed. “Everyone loses when we don’t take the time to understand others’ unique experiences, especially when it’s due to economic, ethnic or even religious differences,” says Faiye, one of six people of color (including Lopez) on the 11-person LOM team. “Fortunately, Lifetime creates a culture of openness and compassion while making a concerted effort to value everyone’s voice in the room.”

So when Lopez had lunch with Robin Roberts (who has a production deal with the network) and the Good Morning America anchor mentioned Jackson as a subject of interest, the soil was already fertile for its latest biopic, Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, which stars Tony nominee Danielle Brooks and premiered April 3.

Mahalia is Lifetime’s third biopic of 2021, all of which focus on Black women (Salt-N-Pepa bowed Jan. 23, followed by Wendy Williams: The Movie a week later). In all, 22 of the network’s 68 biopics since 1993 have centered the lives of Black women. That’s nearly a third — far above the demographic’s 3.7 percent share of lead or co-lead characters among theatrically released films (according to a study released in March by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and USC, which examined the 100 highest-grossing films each year from 2009 to 2019). In an era in which inclusion can be received as a begrudging mandate, LOM’s development process reveals a blueprint for a more organic path.

To hear Lopez tell it, Lifetime has come by its track record somewhat incidentally. “Our biggest victories are telling stories of women and things that people don’t know about,” she says of choosing subjects. And since Black history has long been minimized or excluded from textbooks and news involving Black communities left off the front page, those stories provide a rich vein for Lifetime to mine, from 1999’s Dangerous Evidence — the story of efforts by civil rights activist Lori Jackson (Lynn Whitfield) to exonerate a Black Marine falsely convicted of rape — to last year’s The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel.

While Lifetime has given the biopic treatment to plenty of universal household names, like Whitney Houston, Simone Biles and Meghan Markle, The Clark Sisters is an example of a decision to commit resources to figures beloved within the Black community but not as well known outside it. Once again, it was a Black executive, LOM manager Mychael Chinn, who surfaced the name. And, once again, though non-Black teammates didn’t recognize the gospel group, they didn’t discard the idea as “niche.”

“When we all did our due diligence, we were almost ashamed we didn’t know who the Clark Sisters were, and that has to do with everybody’s education,” Lopez says. “It’s definitely a cultural and racial divide.”

Lifetime’s forays into bridging that divide haven’t hurt its critical or commercial prospects. The network’s 2006 Fantasia Barrino biopic is its second-highest-rated original film of all time, behind 2004’s biopic of Jessica Savitch and just ahead of the network’s 2012 Steel Magnolias remake, starring Queen Latifah and Phylicia Rashad alongside Alfre Woodard, who earned Emmy and SAG nods for her performance. L opez says the themes in these projects — the female friendship dynamics in Salt-N-Pepa, the heroism of a school employee who talks down a would-be shooter in 2018’s Faith Under Fire (starring Toni Braxton) — are compelling to any female audience. “These are the stories we’re interested in telling, no matter the background,” she says, turning again to Mahalia Jackson. “She’s a huge name in the civil rights movement, but a certain portion of our audience only knows of Martin Luther King, because he’s the one the white media and history focused on. So when we look at iconic figures, what’s the story of the woman standing next to the person the light is shining on?

Magary: Daniel Kaluuya proves he’s the world’s best actor in HBO’s ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

“Judas and the Black Messiah” opened on HBO Max last weekend and I’m not gonna bother with a formal review of the film because you can find those anywhere, and because “Judas” is already on its way to amassing a stockpile of award show trophies that a dragon could comfortably rest upon. Most of those trophies, including an Oscar, are gonna be handed out because of this man, Daniel Kaluuya:

You might remember Kaluuya from his breakout role in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Kaluuya got nominated for Best Actor for “Get Out,” and holy s—t did he deserve it. I remember I spent the entirety of that movie terrified for poor Chris. I also remember that when Kaluuya didn’t win Best Actor that year (fellow Brit Gary Oldman got it for playing Winston Churchill), it was okay because anyone who saw Kaluuya’s performance knew he’d be nominated for many, many other roles afterward. Three years later, after sharing the bill for “Widows” and for “Black Panther,” he’s delivered a performance in “Judas and the Black Messiah” that fulfills all of that promise, and far beyond. I saw the trailer for “Judas,” featuring Kaluuya spewing hellfire and brimstone as civil rights legend Fred Hampton, and I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m watching that. He’s gonna kick ass.”

I did and he did. Kaluuya is gonna be back at the Oscars this year, and he’s gonna win that s—t this time around. Because “Judas and the Black Messiah” proves that he’s the best goddamn actor on Earth right now.

Now, Warner Bros. submitted Kaluuya in the supporting actor category for “Judas,” because his “Get Out” co-star LaKeith Stanfield plays the spiritual lead (and is REALLY good) as FBI informant William O’Neal. But “Judas” belongs to Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton.

Hampton was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. His name and his story were completely unfamiliar to me before I started watching Judas. This is because I’m ignorant, and because American schools were far too stingy back in my childhood, and remain so, about allowing nonwhite material into the curriculum. Hampton’s story should be taught. This movie should be taught. And perhaps it will be, because the force of Kaluuya’s performance all but demands it.

You can’t take your eyes off of Daniel Kaluuya. Even in the tender scenes Kaluuya shares with love interest Dominique Fishback, his presence still bleeds off the screen. If Kaluuya spent the rest of his life in character AS Fred Hampton, I would vote him for president. I would pay him money to come to my town, give a speech as Fred and get everyone so fired up they could run through a god damn brick wall. I would like an expanded Fred Hampton Cinematic Universe.

In fact, that’s not far enough. I would like Daniel Kaluuya to be in EVERY movie now. Usually, when you go to an actor’s IMDb page, they have 900 future projects in development, half of which make you wince in anticipation. Kaluuya has just one: a Netflix adaptation of the science fiction novel “The Upper World.” I do not trust Netflix to make this show good — Netflix is like if you went to a brick-and-mortar Blockbuster store and everything in it sucked — but I do trust Kaluuya to play the hell out of his character.

He’s also due to star in “Black Panther 2,” and if they choose to make W’Kabi the next Black Panther (Marvel has already said that they will not recast the late Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, but will find another character to assume the mantle of the Black Panther; now you know as much as the rest of us do about it), you won’t see me complain. This world requires a massive Kaluuya stimulus. Democrats should send every household at least 2,000 Kaluuyas, and not a piddly-s—t 1,400. Hollywood should spin off his tinyass “Sicario” character and make good movies with that character instead of making garbage like “Sicario 2,” which looked like it was produced by Vince McMahon. Make Kaluuya the next Bond. Give him a standalone “Star Wars” franchise that Kathleen Kennedy is barred from ruining. Actually, you know what? F—k “Star Wars.” Daniel Kaluuya is too good for “Star Wars.” Keep Kaluuya away from “Star Wars” and make him Ahab instead. Make him Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Make him Holden Caulfield. Make him Dracula. Make him “JAWS.”

Better yet, make Daniel Kaluuya a character no one has seen or heard of before. This man is part of a breakout mainstream movement in Black cinema that’s the newest, best thing coming out of Hollywood right now. Kaluuya is proof that the movement is already producing more exciting work than the incessant IP-humping that constitutes the bulk of studio products.

This man is not only talented, but he’s also got the juice to keep pushing Hollywood out of its deadened comfort zone. F—k, I’d pay to watch Daniel Kaluuya read the transcript of an investment firm’s Zoom call. I don’t care. Great actors elevate bad material and consecrate great material. That’s what Daniel Kaluuya can do. There’s no stopping him. There’s no need to try. Give him every Oscar, and then get out of his way.

91 movies and TV shows to stream for Black History Month

It will never not be sadly funny that, of course, America designated its shortest month to be the one honoring Black History This year, however, it’s less sadly funny than just plain sad.

Ever since the uprisings last summer, set off by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, structural racism has been part of the national discourse like never before. Some folks are just waking up to its insidious, rampant nature; others feel alternately vindicated by this new awareness and betrayed by its tardiness; and others still have merely doubled down on denying that the problem even exists.
In the months since the George Floyd protests led President Trump to call Black Lives Matter “toxic propaganda,” Black voters came out in full force to elect a new president . . . only to see a coalition of white supremacists attempt to reverse that outcome by force. That they failed is less a cause for celebration than a reason to reflect on why they attempted their coup in the first place.

In any case, it is at a somber, introspective moment in American history that the country finds itself welcoming Black History Month this year. To make the month a bit more nourishing for everyone stuck at home, Fast Company has scoured the streaming services for a bounty of entertaining and often enlightening films and TV shows that showcase either Black stories or the talents of Black creators.
Have a look below at 91 movies and TV series to stream during this poignant Black History Month.
Fictional movies and shows rooted in history
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix
Da Five Bloods on Netflix
Mudbound on Netflix
Roots on HBO Max

Documentaries that tell Black stories
Time on Amazon Prime
I Am Not Your Negro on Netflix
What Happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix
Becoming, on Netflix, takes Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir from page to screen.
LA 92 on Netflix and Burn Motherf**ker, Burn! on Amazon Prime both document the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict that year.
The Last Dance on Netflix
Whitney: Can I Be Me on Amazon Prime
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child on Amazon Prime
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise and Fall of James Brown on Amazon Prime
Whose Streets, on Netflix, documents the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists to bring national attention to the police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali on Amazon Prime
Anita: Speaking Truth to Power on Amazon Prime
All In: The Fight for Democracy, on Amazon Prime, chronicles Stacey Abrams’s fight against voter suppression in her native Georgia, a fight that culminated in Georgia going blue in the 2020 election.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu starting February 26
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami on Hulu
Time: The Kalief Browder Story on Netflix
Being Serena on HBO Max
Original movies and series from Black creators
I May Destroy You, on HBO Max, is a belated breakthrough for creator/star Michaela Coel, who is also behind the underrated gem Chewing Gum, which is also coming to HBO Max on February 1.
Moonlight on Netflix
His House on Netflix
Soul Food on Amazon
Chi-Raq on Amazon
Selah and the Spades on Amazon
Middle of Nowhere, on Netflix as of February 11, is Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film about a woman dropping out of medical school to help her incarcerated husband.
Sylvie’s Love on Amazon
Sorry to Bother You on Hulu is a constantly surprising surrealist critique of capitalism, from Boots Riley in his directorial debut.
Eve’s Bayou on Hulu
If Beale Street Could Talk on Hulu
Clemency on Hulu
Insecure on HBO Max
Lovecraft Country on HBO Max
The Book of Eli on HBO Max
Us on HBO Max
Drumline on HBO Max
Atlanta on Hulu
The Forty Year-Old Version on Netflix
Dear White People on Netflix
Topical standup and sketch comedy
Chris Rock: Total Blackout: The Tamborine Extended Cut on Netflix
Classic sitcoms, old and new
Sister, Sister on Netflix
Watchmen, on HBO Max, is a cultural powerhouse that audaciously grounds the classic graphic novel in a new, racially relevant context. It also provided a prescient history lesson on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre nine months before a planned Trump rally brought it to the forefront of the national conversation.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO Max
Biopics based on Black stories
Fruitvale Station on Netflix
When They See Us, on Netflix, is Ava DuVernay’s powerful, comprehensive 2019 miniseries about the Central Park 5.
Self-Made: Madam CJ Walker on Netflix
Loving, on Netflix, is an Oscar-nominated dramatization of the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia, that invalidated state laws forbidding interracial marriage.
Dolemite Is My Name on Netflix
Hard Lessons on Netflix
Detroit on Hulu
Nina on Hulu
Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max, due on February 12, tells the incredible true story of Fred Hampton (played by Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya), a Black Panther leader murdered by police, and the informant (played by Lakeith Stanfield) who helped them do it.
Just Mercy on HBO Max
The Hurricane on HBO Max
Malcolm X on HBO Max
Barry, on Netflix, is not HBO’s thespian hitman series but rather a film about the adventures of a collegiate Barack Obama.
Harriet on HBO Max
Get On Up on HBO Max
Ray on HBO Max
Confirmation on HBO Max
Bessie on HBO Max

Other movies and shows that tell Black stories
The Princess and the Frog, on Netflix, marks the introduction of Disney’s first-ever Black princess.
Pose, on Netflix, is the acclaimed series about ballroom culture in the 1980s, with a cast that actually reflects the Black trans originators who created it, while Legendary, on HBO Max, is a reality competition series that reveals how the culture flourishes to this day.
American Son on Netflix
Coming to America, on Amazon Prime, not to be confused with the sequel, Coming 2 America, due on Prime in March.
Fast Color on Amazon Prime
Kevin Hart’s Guide to Black History on Netflix
Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices on Netflix (Common)
The Read with Kid Fury and Crissle on Amazon Prime
Black Earth Rising on Netflix is a U.K.-set series about the prosecution of an African militia leader in the International Criminal Court. It’s another acting showcase for Michaela Coel, which originally arrived in between the two series she created herself.
Black Boy Joy on HBO Max
Purple Rain on HBO Max
The Princess and the Frog, on Netflix, marks the introduction of Disney’s first-ever Black princess.