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Viola Davis’ Barbara Jordan Project Still Lives; Tony Kushner Replaces Paris Barclay as Director

Viola Davis' Barbara Jordan Project Still Lives; Tony Kushner Replaces Paris Barclay as Director

It’s a project that she first announced in early 2012 – one of a few Viola Davis is developing via her 3-year-old JuVee production company (formed with her husband) – but we haven’t heard anything further about it since then… until today.

First a recap…

Viola Davis will tackle the life story of Barbara Jordan in a feature film that will be based on the 2000 biography “Barbara Jordan: American Hero,” written by Mary Beth Rogers.

Paris Barclay was attached to direct the film from a script adapted by Emmy-nominated writer Paris Qualles (primarily a writer for TV). But given today’s news, it appears Barclay and Qualles are no longer attached. Davis mentions the Jordan project in passing in a new interview with Variety (published yesterday) about her Emmy win for her performance in ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.”

The interview states: “In the pipeline are projects about civil rights activist and congresswoman Barbara Jordan, to be directed by Tony Kushner; and Vee-Jay Records, which preceded Motown.”

Qualles may still have penned the script, but clearly Paris Barclay is no longer attached to direct, with Kushner, best known for his play “Angels in America,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, as well a Tony Award for Best Play. He also wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

In June 2013, Barclay was elected President of the Directors Guild of America, the first African American and first openly gay President in the history of the Guild; that may have had something to do with his exit. New responsibilities, scheduling, etc…

But it’s good to know that, 3+ years after the initial announced, the project is still very much alive!

A little about Barbara Jordan… she was the first African American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention.

She led a rather private life and thus was considered something of a mystery, even to her close friends – friends who didn’t know about the illness that would eventually kill her at just 59 years old in 1996.

From Publisher’s weekly about the Mary Beth Rogers’ biography of Jordan: “In Barbara Jordan, Mary Beth Rogers deftly explores the forces that shaped the moral character and quiet dignity of this extraordinary woman. She reveals the seeds of Jordan’s trademark stoicism while recapturing the essence of a black woman entering politics just as the civil rights movement exploded across the nation. Celebrating Jordan’s elegance, passion, and patriotism, this illuminating portrayal gives new depth to our understanding of one of the most influential women of our time-a woman whose powerful convictions and flair for oratorical drama changed the political landscape of America’s twentieth century.”

And while she never publicly discussed her sexual orientation (not that she had to), Jordan’s obituary mentioned her long-term (30-year) relationship with Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist.

The film project has apparently been in the works for a few years, as Davis and Barclay are said to have been looking for a project to work on together since Davis starred in Barclay’s CBS medical drama “City of Angels” in 2000. And it looked like they had finally found it.

“We’re hoping this becomes a movie that shows the world everything that Viola can do. People haven’t seen everything that she’s capable of, and this role is so powerful,” said Barclay 3 years ago.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle in 2012, Davis talked about the project (and other things) – specifically on what we can expect to see in the film: “She was an American hero… I think that she was able to overcome a lot of insecurities in her life to fight for something bigger than herself. The movie that I’m working on is to show what a great political and statesperson that she was. But also because I’m an artist, I think it’s even more important to show the personal demons that she had to wrestle with to get where she got to in her life in the political arena, and I think that is what makes her a hero. Oftentimes, we do not see that side of black female life. A lot of times we see that part where we win, we overcome, we’re fabulous, but I don’t think we often see the struggle – how we got to that point. That’s what I want to show.” 

Some would probably argue the opposite – that we tend to see more of the struggle, and not enough of the fabulous, when it comes to depictions of black female life on cinema screens.

But I understand the need for balance – to show a complete, 3-dimensional human being, warts and all; instead of hagiography.

In that same interview, she added: “Instead of always criticizing Hollywood for what I feel they are not doing, I decided to be instrumental in that niche. I realized that in 24 years of being in this business, you have to be a creator of this different material. All of the stuff I’m working on has roles for black actors in Hollywood – and good roles… The only thing that separates many black actors from many of their Caucasian counterparts that are thriving is opportunity.”

Indeed. Sound familiar? That saying has obviously motivated her to create her own opportunities, instead of depending on the mercy of others.

Initial funding for development of the Barbara Jordan project was provided by Chicago real estate developer David “Buzz” Ruttenberg. 

No word on when we can expect to see the completed film.

Below, watch the real Barbara Jordan, giving the 1976 DNC Keynote Address:

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