A Capsule Guide to Docudramas
by Steve Lipkin

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One need look no further than any issue of TV Guide to find evidence of the immense popularity of docudrama. Feature film docudrama has expanded beyond the traditional turf of the biopic (Spike Lee's Malcolm X; Tina Turner's trials in What's Love Got to Do With It) to personalize broad social issues (the Oliver Stone/Jim Garrison "outlaw history" of the Kennedy assassination in JFK; the holocaust in Schindler's List; the victim's view of the British legal system in In The Name of the Father).

Holly Hunter in
The Positively
True Adventures
of the Alleged
Texas Cheerleader-
Murdering Mom

Recent features range from women's professional baseball (A League of Their Own) to medical breakthroughs (Awakenings) to naval history (The Bounty). TV movies-of-the-week bring front page news stories to living rooms with astonishing rapidity. Beyond the usual disease-of-the-week offerings audiences can relive vicariously disasters (The Tragedy of Flight 103: The Inside Story), abuse (The Boys of St. Vincent), ill-fated affairs (The Amy Fisher Story [ABC]/Amy Fisher: My Story [NBC]/Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story [CBS]), and contemporary courtroom spectacles (Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders [Fox]/Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills [CBS]; The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom).

Why is a form capable of covering such a huge range of characters, topics and events so appealing? The sense that these films provide an inside view of how something might have "really" happened offers only a partial answer. A film may stem from well-known figures, events, or published accounts, but notoriety is not necessarily essential in order to reach an audience.

Docudrama fuses documentary material with melodrama, so that much of its strength must result from its emphasis on emotion, its preference for family iconography, and the power of its argument for a moral view of reality-based subject matter. In the Name of the Father, for example, examines Irish/English political tensions through their impact on the Conlon family as it condemns unjust British suppression. Schindler's factory workers become the family he saves from destruction in Nazi concentration camps. The title of A League of Their Own suggests how teams of women ballplayers struggled to overcome barriers to success, only to find it temporary, brought to an end with the end of the war and the return of men to resume their "rightful" places at work, and women theirs, at home.

Like melodrama generally, docudrama argues that lost or elusive moral perspectives can be regained. While the actuality a work recreates may show the exercise of right and wrong thrown into jeopardy, the docudramatization of actual people, incidents and events ultimately restores a sense of a moral system at work. The world here can still be a place where on some scale, in some way, the struggle for a balance between right and wrong attains coherence.

A few sample docudramas on video:

  • Malcolm X (Warner Home Video)
  • What's Love Got to Do With It (Touchstone Video)
  • Schindler's List (MCA/Universal)
  • JFK (Warner Home Video)
  • In the Name of the Father (MCA/Universal)
  • A League of Their Own (Columbia)
  • Awakenings (RCA/Columbia)
  • The Bounty (Vestron)
  • The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom (HBO)
  • The Tragedy of Flight 103 (Live Home Video)
  • The Boys of St. Vincent (New Yorker Films Video)
  • The Amy Fisher Story (Image Pictures Video)
  • Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story (Columbia/Tristar Video)
  • Honor Thy Father and Mother: The Menendez Killings (Wea Video)

Photo Credits: HBO Home Video.