Updating this list as I do once a year, at the end of each year (I started it 3 years ago) to keep you all up-to-date on where each project stands going into the new year…
There are more than 50 biopics on the lives of black public figures in the works, based on the S&A archives – the majority of them first announced in the last 3 – 4 years, and, unfortunately, so few of them will actually, eventually see the light of day.
Some of these figures even have more than 1 film project in the works that will center on their lives; a few have/have had as many as 4 or 5.
It’s not necessarily mind-boggling, but, with each new project announcement, one can’t help but be skeptical that they all will receive the necessary backing, and be pushed all the way through production.
Based on our reporting, I’d say that the hold-up for most of them is financial. Some have already been scripted, and have actors attached, but financiers apparently aren’t convinced enough to invest in them.
Others have rights hurdles to get past; and still some face challenges/objections from family members, estates, or other powerful, influential voices.
A few have already been produced, but are without distribution (at least, stateside distribution); another few reportedly have the financial backing necessary to go into production, and are scheduled to do so soon, but as we’ve seen happen with at least one of those *sure-things*, anything can happen leading up to previously-announced filming start dates, that send the project back into so-called “development hell.”
Some of the names have seen successful feature documentaries made about their lives (or documentaries currently in development), but progress on feature scripted narratives that were once announced, isn’t certain in every case.
On-screen depictions of a few of these names will happen in films centered on other real-life figures (in most cases, white people); essentially, they’ll be supporting characters in someone else’s story.
And on, and on, and on…
But then a question worth asking is whether we really need, or rather if there’s a large enough audience for films on every single one of these men and women.
I’m much less interested in what I call birth-to-death stories, and would prefer to see filmmakers tackle specific periods of a subject’s life – maybe cover a period of years in which the person being profiled was at their career peak, or went through some tragic, life-changing experience. Or maybe even select a single interesting week, or a day in that person’s life, and tell us about it.
It’s a fool’s errand trying to capture an entire life in 2 hours, and those traditional, conventional biopics tend to be rather boring. At least I think so.
Below you’ll find the full list of the all the biopic projects we know of, with new additions announced since the last time I updated this list a year ago, and a sentence updating you on what we know of each one as of today. And as has happened with each update, a few of them finally moved on to production, and have premiere dates set (those I removed from the list, like Nate Parker’s Nat Turner film, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival next month, as well as Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis project, which already premiered, and is set for a USA theatrical run starting next spring). And there are others that have seen some movement since my last update. However, the majority are still “in Limbo”:
– John Coltrane – We already told you about long-time Spike Lee editor (as well as director and producer in his own right) Sam Pollard’s John Coltrane documentary, which is currently in production, and has been for a few years now (we first learned about it in 2012), titled “A Love Supreme: A Portrait of John Coltrane in 4 Parts.” The film is said to be based on the critically-acclaimed book “A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album” by music journalist Ashley Kahn. It will reportedly be structured in the same way as Coltrane’s influential 1964 album of the same name. The album is divided into four parts: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” It will feature interviews with Coltrane’s band-mates and friends, as well as historians and music journalists, artists, and people of faith who were inspired by the album. Also, and interestingly, Pollard has said that he plans to use animation to help tell Coltrane’s story, and I’m very curious as to how he plans to implement/incorporate. I put the film on my Sundance 2015 predictions list, but it didn’t premiere there. There’s a second project – director John Scheinfeld (“The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” “Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson” and more) is developing a film on Coltrane, to be produced by Spencer Proffer, via his Meteor 17 company. The filmmakers aim to make a film that “humanizes” Coltrane, and not a work of hagiography.
– Destiny’s Child – Courtesy of the Sony email hack-attack last year, we learned that the studio has (or maybe I should say “had”) interest in a Destiny’s Child biopic. In a December 2013 group email from Screen Gems chief Clint Culpepper to Sony Co-Chairman Amy Pascal and other Sony execs, they discussed Beyoncé’s father, Matthew Knowles’ attempts to set up a Destiny’s Child biopic at the studio. Although there seemed to be some initial trepidation from Culpepper, responses from the other Sony execs were very enthusiastic about the idea. No word, however, on whether this is a project that’s still of interest to the studio. Culpepper does state that Papa Knowles planned to also approach Universal Pictures about the project – I assume, to put some pressure on Sony to make a decision (as in, “if you’re not interested, I’ll take it somewhere else”).
– Paul Robeson – We know of 2 different projects. In the first one, David Harewood was attached to star, with Sydney Tamiia Poitier (daughter of Sidney Poitier) playing his wife, Eslanda (“Essie”) Goode Robeson. Louis Gossett Jr. was to portray W.E.B. Du Bois in the independently-produced film which was to be directed by South African director Darrell Roodt (“Winnie”). Shooting was set to begin last year; it never did. The second hails from Steve McQueen, who revealed in an interview late last year, that he plans to direct a feature film based on the life of Paul Robeson, saying that it will indeed be his next feature directorial effort (he’s currently working on an HBO series, previously covered on this blog). Harry Belafonte is involved in the project, although we don’t yet know in what capacity exactly. I’d guess, as a producer/consultant, given that Belafonte and Robeson were pals. McQueen added: “We’re very fortunate that we’re on a roll together to make this dream a reality. Miracles do happen. With Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, things have come full circle.” He didn’t share what actors he may be eyeing for the part.
– Vanessa del Rio – 2 years ago, we alerted you to a Vanessa del Rio biopic that was in development at the time, titled “The Amazing Life of Vanessa del Rio,” which the producers described as “Boogie Nights” meets “Taxi Driver.” The movie will chronicle the porn star’s career set against the backdrop of NYC’s then gritty organized crime-controlled Times Square, during the tumultuous 1970s & 1980s. To be directed by Thomas Mignone, best known for several award-winning music videos for bands like Slipknot, Mudvayne, System Of A Down, and Sepultura, the production has cast the actress who will play del Rio: Zulay Henao, who co-starred in Tyler Perry’s “The Single Moms Club.” Also Datari Turner will be one of the film’s producers, alongside Arthur Sarkissian.
– Lorraine Hansberry – An unconventional biopic based on the life of playwright, author, activist Lorraine Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun”), was in development, with long time collaborators Taye Hansberry (grand niece of Lorraine Hansberry and author of stuffshelikes.net), and Numa Perrier (Black&SexyTV) penning the script to a film that will star Taye in the title role, and will be directed by Perrier. Issa Rae was set to play Nina Simone, a close friend of Lorraine until her death.
– Peggielene Bartels – Queen Latifah is attached to star in a biopic on the life of Peggielene Bartels, the then 55-year-old Ghanaian American secretary (in 2008), living in a modest one-bedroom condo just outside Washington D.C., who learned that she had become the King of Otuam, a small fishing village on the coast of Ghana. The story goes… The previous king of Otuam, who was Bartels’s uncle, had just died. The village elders, who remembered Bartels from the times she’d visited with her mother, decided to anoint her as their new ruler. After the initial shock, Bartels decided to accept the kingship, and after working for nearly three decades as an Administrative Assistant at the Ghanaian Embassy in the United States, went back to Ghana to wear her King crown, becoming King Peggy – the first female king of Otuam, reigning over approximately 7,000 people! Upon arriving for her crowning ceremony in Otuam, she discovered the dire reality: there’s no running water, no hospital, no schools, and many of the village elders are corrupt. To make matters worse, her uncle (the late king) sits in a morgue awaiting a proper funeral in the royal palace, which is in ruins. And over the following few years, she not only transformed herself, but the community she ruled over as well. Her story was documented in a book titled, aptly, “King Peggy,” which Will Smith reportedly bought the rights to, for Queen Latifah to star in.
– Sylvia Robinson – Most recently, a pair of writers on the hit Fox series “Empire” – Carlito Rodriguez (also once editor-in-chief of The Source, and writer for HBO’s “The Leftovers”) and Malcolm Spellman (a record label owner and manager of “black roots” singer Fantastic Negrito, who also co-scripted “Our Family Wedding”) – were hired to script the previously announced biopic on the late Sugar Hill Records co-founder Sylvia Robinson, a singer, songwriter and record producer, who formed the pioneering hip-hop group Sugarhill Gang and made the first commercially successful rap recording with them. She died at 75 years old in September 2011 of congestive heart failure, after being in a coma. She built a successful career as an R&B singer before she and her husband, Joe Robinson, formed Sugar Hill Records in the 1970’s, and went on to nurse a musical genre that came to dominate mainstream music. In the late 1960s, Ms. Robinson became one of the few women to produce records in any genre when she and her husband founded All Platinum Records. She played an important role in the development of the group The Moments, producing their 1970 hit single “Love on a Two-Way Street.” But her greatest achievement was her decision in 1979 to produce a recording in what was then a considered a new musical art form known as rapping, masterminding the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop single to become a commercial hit. Some call her “the mother of hip-hop.” Producer Paula Wagner acquired the film rights to Sylvia Robinson’s life story, last year, with plans to produce a biopic on the hip-hop pioneer. Sylvia’s son, Joey Robinson (administrator of the Sylvia Robinson Estate), will executive produce, while music executive Robert Kraft with co-produce. Grandmaster Melle Mel will serve as consultant to Joey Robinson. The film is expected to cover much of her life and professional career, and will include music from the era during which she made her mark – especially those she was responsible for.
– A biopic based on the life of singer/songwriter Bobby Womack, who died a couple of months ago, is in development, under the supervision of his longtime manager and friend Don Smalls. Smalls says he already has a 120-page script that Womack approved before his death, adding, in a press statement, with regards to casting, that, “There has been talk of Mos Def and Samuel L. Jackson, but we’re also interested in casting an unknown.” Active since the early 1960s, when he started his career as the lead singer of his family musical group, the Valentinos, and as Sam Cooke’s back-up guitarist, Womack’s career spanned more than 50 years, and several genres, including R&B, soul, rock and roll, doo-wop, gospel, and country. He wrote and originally recorded the Rolling Stones’ first UK No. 1 hit, “It’s All Over Now,” and New Birth’s “I Can Understand It” among other songs. “I think with the right producer and director, this could be a real blockbuster,” Don Smalls also said.
– Oscar Micheaux – Currently in development are: writer/director JD Walker’s Micheaux feature film (a scripted project we first alerted you to a couple of years ago), titled “Oscar Micheaux: Negro Pioneer;” and a feature documentary called “Oscar’s Comeback,” directed by Lisa Collins, which takes a look at a festival celebrating a Micheaux – a festival in an all-white town (Gregory, South Dakota).
– Singer/actress Toni Braxton is set to star as Darlene Love in OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s first scripted TV film “My Name is Love: The Darlene Love Story.” Executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and filmmaker Morgan Neville (“Twenty Feet From Stardom”), “My Name is Love: The Darlene Love Story” features the story of one of the 1960’s iconic musical voices, Darlene Love. Love began cutting records for producer Phil Spector right out of high school, and went on to work with some of the greatest musical talents in history, including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen. Including her love affair with Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers, Love’s “dishy and dramatic” story is one of a woman who had it all, lost it all, but never, ever refused to give up. Toni Braxton, most recently seen on Broadway in the musical revue “After Midnight,” will star in the title role.
– A film based on the true story of Bob Marley and the Wailers has long been in the works, set up at Mandalay Pictures, with writer Barry Morrow (“Rain Man”) and producer Cathy Schulman (“Crash”) both said to be attached to the project. Titled “Buffalo Soldiers” (named after song written by Bob Marley), the biopic, as it’s being described, will follow Marley and the Wailers and their many struggles faced on their way to eventual success. The title and lyrics refer to the black U.S. cavalry regiments, known as “Buffalo Soldiers”, that fought in the American Indian Wars in the last 1800s/early 1900s. Marley’s song turned their fight for survival into a symbol of black resistance. The Wailers was created by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1963, to be later joined by Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith. The group eventually disbanded, and Bob Marley began touring with new band members. No word on what the exact status of the project is, other than it’s been set up at Mandalay with the above names attached, meaning it may or may not happen. We’ll just have to wait and see.
– Shirley Bassey – Director Marc Evans is helming it. It was selected as one of 25 feature narrative projects in IFP’s 2012 Project Forum Transatlantic Partners’ Projects), as well as the 15th edition of Strategic Partners, an international summit where projects are paired up with producers, most recently.
– Pelé – Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are producing a project based on a recommendation by New York Cosmos soccer club chairman Paul Kemsley, who owns the life story rights to Pelé. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist penned the screenplay, and are directing the film as well. Principal photography took place in 2013, in Brazil, with the goal being to release the film prior to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It didn’t happen.
– Marvin Gaye – of the 4+ Marvin Gaye projects we know of, the only one that appears to still have life will star Jesse L. Martin directed by Julien Temple. Most recently, in 2013, it was announced that Focus Features International, the company that picked up the project, and shopped it at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, pulled out of the production, which was then put on hiatus (reasons weren’t clear, although I figured it had something to do with financing), despite a reported 70% of the shoot already complete. Since that 2013 report, I haven’t heard or read anything to confirm that production is back on track. Earlier this month, it was announced that F. Gary Gray is prepping a Marvin Gaye film as well, although details on that project are scarce at the moment.
– Nina Simone – Three months ago, RLJ Entertainment announced its acquisition of all North American rights to “Nina,” the Nina Simone biopic that Zoe Saldana stars in; the one that found itself at the center of much criticism over Saldana’s casting; a film that’s been in release limbo for a long while. A December (this month) release date was eyed, although given what Saldana said in an interview she gave to Latina.com last month, the film may not even be finished yet. When asked about “Nina,” specifically how she prepared for the role, and the criticism she faced when it was announced that she’d been cast in the film (and since then), Saldana said (emphasis mine): “I needed to walk her path. As a woman, it wasn’t difficult to empathize with another woman. But I needed to be very isolated. I moved out of my house for three months. I wasn’t really talking to anybody that I knew. I just needed to be all things Nina. It was so intense, and everything happened really fast. The people behind the project weren’t my cup of tea. The director was fine, but there was a lot of mismanagement, which is why we’re still here three years later. And I’m still trying to fight with everybody to get the movie finished. Nina deserves better.” And when the interviewer asks whether she’s still “haunted” by Nina Simone, Saldana replied (again, emphasis mine): “Still to this day, I can’t listen to her music. I’ll be able to listen to her and not feel so heartbroken once I either finish this movie and release it, knowing that we did the best we could, or this movie goes away. I pray that somebody tells her story and they do it amazingly well. And then I’ll just put this to rest. But so far I’m still hanging in there with her. We’re still fighting together to tell it like it is. And that’s the best way to be.” So in reading all of that, we’re left wondering whether the film is still in play, because it sounds like it’s not entirely complete. Although Saldana didn’t go into specifics when she said that the movie still needs to be “finished” so that it can finally be released, or buried altogether.
– Aretha Franklin – Really, only Aretha Franklin herself has been trying to get this made, with Halle Berry as her #1 choice to star, followed by Jennifer Hudson and Audra McDonald. No word on where exactly this stands. Although, last summer, Franklin revealed publicly that she’d met with Lifetime channel executives in New York, to discuss her biopic (one that’s been in development for what feels like an eternity). She didn’t share what came of her meeting with Lifetime, other than to say that they were “very, very close to signatures.” But I won’t at all be surprised if a deal was struck, given the network’s recent interest in biopics based on the lives of black public figures. For example, “Betty & Coretta,” Gabby Douglas, Whitney Houston, and Aaliyah. There have also been several Lifetime movies telling stories centered on the lives of black characters, like the all-black remake of “Steel Magnolias,” “A Day Late and a Dollar Short,” “Abducted,” and more. Clearly the network is interested (and has likely found much success) in targeting African American audiences with its original movies. An Aretha Franklin biopic would certainly fit – depending on how Franklin herself imagines the project’s look and feel.
– Pam Grier – Rights to her autobiography have been optioned and a script adaptation was said to be in development. No news.
– Hank Aaron – director Barry Levinson is developing a project, which was first announced in the spring of 2012. No news.
– Tupac – After years of musical chairs, newcomer Demetrius Shipp, Jr. has been cast to play Tupac Shakur in the long-in-development biopic of the late rapper/actor, which recently signed music video/commercial director Benny Boom to direct (replacing Carl Franklin, who replaced John Singleton, who replaced Antoine Fuqua), with filming currently underway in Atlanta.
– Michael Jackson – around the time of his death, there was talk both here in the USA and in the UK of Michael Jackson biopics being in development (of course we got a couple of documentaries). Nothing definite.
– Mahalia Jackson – Euzhan Palcy was all set to direct one with Fantasia starring a few years ago. Jackson’s family reportedly had second thoughts about Fantasia playing the part, and it never lifted off. When we spoke to Palcy earlier this year, this is what she said about the project: “Some terrible things happened. Fantasia couldn’t make the movie anymore. Some stuff happened between her and the producers and then the project was gone. I spent 3 years of my life working hard on that project and it didn’t happen. But you know, I am glad because I had other projects that I’d put aside to work on it. I’d made it a priority. There are projects like Toussaint Louverture and Mahalia Jackson, because of who these people were, you need to be very careful. Not just anybody can do a Mahalia Jackson project or a Toussaint Louverture project. Your heart must be in the right place and you must be doing it for the right reason. I’ll even go as far as saying that if you do those movies for the wrong reasons, if you are not fully sincere, these people’s spirit will fight you. They are very special people. That’s why there are those who struggle but can’t get there. It’s because they are not doing those movies for good reasons. You must be ready to sacrifice so many things when you make those kind of movies.” There is a second Mahalia Jackson project, which hails from screenwriter/director and college professor at Columbia College in Chicago, Vaun Monroe and Chicago filmmaker Ruth L Ratny, for Joyful Noise, LLC. It’ll be based on Mahalia’s seminal biography, “Just Mahalia, Baby,” which is the source for most of the information publicly available about the gospel diva’s life and music. It was authored by Mahalia’s friend, Laurraine Goreau, a distinguished New Orleans writer and editor, who had access to a lifetime of Mahalia memorabilia.The filmmakers were hoping to eventually attract the $20 million in funding that will be necessary to make the kind of film that they believe Jackson deserves, and say that a small percentage of that figure had already been raised. No news since then.
– ODB – RZA was supposedly shepherding an Old Dirty Bastard project, and said a couple of years or so ago that Tracey Morgan and Eddie Griffin were both in contention for the starring role (Michael K. Williams will play him in an upcoming film that’s NOT specifically about ODB, however).
– Florence Ballard – Jurnee Smollet was reportedly attached to play the ex-Supreme, with Beyonce’s sister, Solange Knowles in the role of Diana Ross. No movement.
– Sammy Davis Jr – 4 years ago, it was announced that Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios acquired rights to his life story from his daughter Tracey Davis, with plans to develop both a feature film AND a stage production. Later, it was reported that Lee Daniels had been circling an HBO Sammy Davis Jr. project. It wasn’t clear whether the HBO project had any connection to Byron Allen’s. A year after the Byron Allen announcement, a $35+ million lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles, by independent producer Rick Appling against Byron Allen and his Entertainment Studios, claiming that he (Appling) owns the rights the Sammy Davis Jr’s life story, not Allen, and that Allen screwed him over royally!
– Barbara Jordan – Viola Davis is attached to star as the late congresswoman with Paris Barclay directing. No movement there since that announcement 2 years ago.
– Marion Barry – Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy were developing a project for HBO. No movement.
– Charley Pride – Dwayne Johnson was said to be attached to star in a biopic on the country music star. Johnson’s been incredibly busy with numerous projects. But no movement on this one.
– Marcus Garvey – There were rumors that Don Cheadle was developing one with Kevin Navayne starring. Cheadle later denied those rumors. Although the project still seems to be alive, with Navayne attached. There’s likely no money to get it made.
– Louis Armstrong – in 2008, Forest Whitaker announced that he was planning to star in and direct a film based on the life of the jazzman, which he was supposed to start filming a year later. It didn’t happen, and hasn’t happened. It’s likely dead.
– B.B. King – 3 years ago Wendell Pierce announced that he was attached to star as King in a project. But there was some issue with the real-life King, who apparently hadn’t approved of the film. Pierce later said that he wouldn’t make any film about B.B. King without King’s blessing.
– Fela – Steve McQueen’s project, which Chiwetel Ejiofor was once attached to star in, is dead, with Andrew Dosunmu taking over. It’s been at least 4 years since the project was first announced. It still might happen, although with the shake-up at Focus Features last year (the company behind the production), I won’t hold my breath.
– Hattie McDaniel – Mo’nique purchased life rights to the late actress years ago, and once said she wanted Lee Daniels to direct. No movement.
– Shirley Chisolm – Shola Lynch’s excellent documentary aside, both Viola Davis and Regina King have been said to be attached to star as Chisolm in a scripted biopic. Nothing more to say here.
– Thelonius Monk – A passion project for Denzel Washington, which he said, earlier last year, he has a script for. But no director nor financing yet… that we know of.
– Milli Vanilli – At least 2 have been announced over the last decade, with Brett Ratner at one time said to be attached to direct back in 2007, and later German filmmaker Florian Gallenberger. No movement on either.
– Sam Cooke – Announced 2 years ago, an adaptation of Peter Guralnick’s 2005 bio “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke,” is in development. In 2013, the last time we heard anything about the project, we learned exclusively that Carl Franklin was attached to write and direct. No ETA yet. Also, announced earlier this year, another attempt at telling the story of Sam Cooke on film, is in the works, with music and film producer Romeo Antonio, in collaboration with Cooke’s family, to develop the project, with a script being written by Mary Krell-Oishi. Also working on the project is author B.G. Rhule, who wrote the book, “One More River to Cross: The Redemption of Sam Cooke.” On December 11, 1964, at the age of 33, Cooke was fatally shot by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California, who claimed that she shot him in self-defense after he broke into her office residence and attacked her. Her account was immediately questioned and disputed by Cooke’s family. After an inquest, the courts ruled Cooke’s death to be a justifiable homicide, and since then, the circumstances of his death have been consistently called into question by Cooke’s family and his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. “I am treating it like a murder investigation,” producer Antonio said. No ETA yet; let’s hope this one eventually is produced.
– “Freeway“ Rick Ross – a “Traffic”-like biopic on the life of 1980s drug dealer has been in the works for a few years now, with Nick Cassavetes (son of indie film trailblazer John Cassavetes) reportedly directing.
– Richard Pryor – Mike Epps is attached to star in Lee Daniels’ biopic. Previously, Chris Rock was producing a project with Marlon Wayans attached to star. That was first announced 3-4 years ago. A couple of years later, Forest Whitaker took over the project (as producer). And, last year, Lee Daniels was announced as director, with The Weinstein Company producing, and Mike Epps starring. Nick Cannon, as well as Michael B. Jordan and Marlon Wayans (who was attached to star in the project before it changed producer hands), were also in contention for the part under Daniels’ direction. Also, Oprah Winfrey will play Marie Carter, Pryor’s grandmother, and Kate Hudson will play Jennifer Lee Pryor in the film. It’s also worth noting that, Richard Pryor’s son threatened legal action in a move to block production on Daniels’ in-development film about the legendary comic. Lawyers representing Richard Pryor, Jr. reportedly sent a cease and desist letter to Pryor’s (the father’s) widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor, who is involved in the making of the film. The letter, obtained by TMZ, insisted that all work on the project stop, accusing Jennifer Lee of using “illegal, fraudulent” activity to obtain the rights to her husband’s story. Pryor Jr. was also reportedly threatening to take legal action, if the biopic does moves forward. It’s moving forward.
– Sugar Ray Robinson – Wil Haygood’s acclaimed biography “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson” was optioned in 2010 to be adapted. In 2013, “Moneyball” producer Racheal Horowitz, and “Game Change” screenwriter Danny Strong, were said to be moving ahead with the project, with David Oyelowo now tapped to star.
– Joe Louis – Bill Duke is now prepping a project on the boxer (this was announced a couple of months ago). Previously… Spike Lee had been trying to get his project (“Save Us, Joe Louis”) produced forever. Also, announced last year, the producing team behind recent sports-related Broadway shows – like “Lombardi,” about the Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, and “Magic/Bird,” about the friendship between basketball legends Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird – acquired exclusive global, theatrical and movie rights to boxing great Joe Louis’ life story. But no specifics on any planned projects, whether for the stage of for screen. Spike’s film was to focus on the life and times of the heavyweight champ, a project he was said to be set to shoot the summer after the project was initially announced, in 2000, after famously losing out to Michael Mann for the job of directing Warner Bros’ Muhammad Ali biopic, which starred Will Smith. Lee had acquired the rights to Louis’ life story from the late champ’s son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr, and was developing the script in tandem with boxing expert Bert Randolph Sugar and sceenwriting legend Budd Schulberg. It was to focus on the political implications of Louis’ reign as heavyweight champ, with particular focus on his two battles with the German heavyweight Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938. Lee planned to concentrate on the symbolic roles that both men played – Louis, a hero for Black Americans in then a segregated America, and Schmeling, touted by Hitler as the ultimate Nazi fighting machine. Now that rights to Louis’ story officially no longer belong to Spike, what might that mean for “Save Us, Joe Louis”? Maybe the duo who now own the rights will consider Spike as director of any feature films they decide to make on Louis’ life. Maybe they’ll get behind “Save Us, Joe Lewis.”
– Jim Brown – Spike Lee previously said he had a project on Brown in the works. However, in 2012, producer Hal Lieberman (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “Vacancy”) acquired rights to the football legend/actor’s life story for a feature film to be written by Bob Eisele (“The Great Debaters”) and directed by Jonathan Hock. No ETA yet.
– Dr. S. Allen Counter (the African-American neuroscience professor) – One of many projects that was on Will Smith’s upcoming slate of films; Debbie Allen is/was also involved in some capacity. Nothing new to report here.
– Oprah Winfrey – To be based on Kitty Kelley’s 2010 unauthorized bio about her (which we profiled on this blog). Rights to the book were optioned in a 6-figure deal, by one Larry Thompson, who’s produced previous biopics on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Sonny and Cher, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Thompson planned to develop the project as a TV movie or miniseries, with its debut scheduled to coincide with Oprah’s final syndicated episode in September 2011. Never happened. So it’s likely dead.
– George Weah – in 2010, actor Dermot Mulroney was said to be working on a biopic on the life of Liberian soccer star-turned-politician. Nothing doing here.
– Laurie Cunningham – a biopic on the black British soccer star was announced in 2010. Anthony Mackie and Ashley Walters have been mentioned as possible candidates. No word on whether it’s still alive.
– Buddy Bolden – Another Anthony Mackie project that’s been in development for a long time. 2 years ago, the director, Dan Pritzker, said he wasn’t in any rush to get it finished, and gave a timeline of 12-18 months. Mackie most recently told us that he was finished with it. The actor was replaced by the British actor who played “Downton Abbey’s” first black character, Gary Carr. So maybe a 2015 debut.
– Rick James – In 2009, his daughter Ty James hinted at an actor with the initials T.H. that she said was in talks to star in a biopic on the musician’s life. We guessed that T.H. was Terrence Howard. But nothing’s happening here.
– Mike Tyson – Well, HBO passed on Spike’s “Da Brick,” although it wasn’t specifically a Tyson biopic. But for years now, Jamie Foxx has been pushing to star in a film on Tyson’s life, and Tyson has given him his blessing. Last year, Tyson himself said that he’s been meeting with Foxx, and the two are working together to bring the project to life. Specifically, Tyson revealed publicly that the project is indeed in motion, and he hoped principal photography kicks off some time in 2015 or soon thereafter. The obvious question here is: how will a 46 year old Jamie Foxx will play a Mike Tyson during his amateur and professional boxing days (from his teens to his early 20s)? They say “black don’t crack,” but Jamie Foxx, while he looks great for 46, certainly cannot pass for a 15 to 25 year old, which would be the age range he’d have to play, given that these were Tyson’s active years as a boxer.
– Tammy Terrell – Two+ years ago, it was rumored that Taraji P. Henson had been cast as Tammi Terrell in Universal’s James Brown biopic, “Get On Up,” which starred Chadwick Boseman. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. It may have simply been wishful thinking by whomever started the rumor, especially given that there is indeed a slight resemblance between Taraji and Terrell. Skip ahead to earlier this year, when it was announced that “Vampire Diaries” star Kat Graham had been cast to play Terrell in an upcoming biopic of the late singer, from writer/producer/director/actress Maryam Myika Day, and produced by Robert Teitel, Rose Ganguzza and Hilary Shor. Principal photography on the yet-to-be-titled feature film is set for 2016. Now skip ahead again several months to October of this year, to the announcement that actress Tamala Jones is also producing a Tammi Terrell biopic as well, which will be based on the book, “My Sister Tommie – The Real Tammi Terrell,” written by Terrell’s sister Ludie Montgomery, published in 2005. The project, which Tamala Jones appears to be only producing (via her Foxy Roxy shingle) and not starring in (although it’s said that she will have a supporting role in the film), does have Terrell’s estate’s blessing. Sylvia Jahshan is scripting the adaptation, with filming also set to also begin in 2016.
– Add films telling the stories of Def Jam Recordings/Russell Simmons, Death Row Records, Dogg Pound, Gang Starr and Master P. to the growing list of potential “hip-hop bios” that may (or may not) have the immense success of Universal’s “Straight Outta Compton” to thank for any studio interest in them. First, Universal is considering a feature that would be based on Russell Simmons’ 2002 book “Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, + God,” which documents his journey as a cultural tastemaker, chronicling his numerous business successes and occasional failures – the founding of the legendary Def Jam Records, whose roster included rap icons like L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys; the launching of Def Comedy Jam, the long-running hit television series that introduced a new generation of black comedic stars like Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac and Chris Rock; his navigating Hollywood, producing hit movies like Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor;” his clothing line, Phat Farm; and more. The project is still in its early stages, but Michael B. Jordan and Jonah Hill are said to both be in contention to play the younger Simmons and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin respectively. It joins an existing list of “hip-hop bios” in the works that includes: a Death Row Records film, with talent agency APA said to be shopping the project around, which will be titled “Welcome to Death Row,” and will focus on the years after N.W.A formed, and all the acts that came after them, forging their own solo careers – rappers like Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, the aforementioned Dogg Pound and others. There’s also an upcoming Dogg Pound biopic, which, formed in 1992, is made up of West Coast rappers Daz Dillinger and Kurupt, who were signed to Dr Dre’s Death Row Records early in their careers, and played a part in the label’s success. There was talk of a film that would tell the combined stories of Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Tha Dogg Pound – rumors fueled by Dogg Pound member, Daz Dillinger, who told TMZ in an interview last month that it was definitely happening. A Gang Starr biopic is also a possibility; DJ Premier said he was working on one. Also Master P. has teamed up with Queen Latifah and her Flavor Unit production company, to produce a film on his life.
– Leo Africanus – Earlier this year, Mauritanian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, revealed that, for his next film (following the great success that was “Timbuktu”), he was considering an adaptation of Lebanese author Amin Maalouf’s “Leo the African,” a historical novel based on the real-life of Hasan al-Wazzan, also known as Leo Africanus, a 15th century Moorish explorer, diplomat and author, best known for his book “Descrittione dell’Africa” (“Description of Africa”), which lays out the geography of North Africa. There’s a second Leo Africanus film in development with French-Moroccan actor Jamel Debbouze on-board to star. The feature film will also be an adaptation of Amin Maalouf’s book, but Sissako’s name isn’t attached to this project. And based on what I know of how these things work, there can’t be 2 films in the works based on the same novel, at the same time. One of these productions currently claims the rights to Maalouf’s book; both of them can’t – again, not simultaneously. Leo Africanus was born in Granada, in 1485, and died around 1554, in Tunisia – a traveler whose writings were Europe’s principal sources of information about Islam, for centuries. Educated in Morocco, he was an avid traveler, typically on commercial and diplomatic missions through North Africa. During one of his trips through the Mediterranean, he was captured by Christian pirates and, because he showed extraordinary intelligence, he was presented as a gift to Pope Leo X, as a slave, who was impressed with his smarts, and would later free him, having persuaded him to profess Christianity, and had him baptized. His name was changed to Giovanni Leone, after converting, and he enjoyed favor in scholarly Roman society, learned Latin and Italian, and taught Arabic. Around 1526 he completed his greatest work, “Descrittione dell’Africa” (a geographical breakdown of Africa). He eventually returned to North Africa, where he is believed to have died a Muslim. There is very little actually known about his actual life, and author Amin Maalouf’s book fills in historical episodes, placing Leo in the company of many of the key historical figures of his time, including three popes, (Leo X, Adrian VI, and Pope Clement VII), two Ottoman emperors (Selim I and Suleiman the Magnificent), with appearances by Boabdil (the last Moorish king of Granada), Askia Mohammad I of the Songhai Empire, Ferdinand of Spain, and Francis I of France, as well as the artist Raphael and other key political and cultural figures of the period. Legend has it that Shakespeare based his Othello on Leo Africanus.
– Roberto Clemente – A biopic of Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente, the first Latino inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, is in development at Legendary Pictures – the same company that backed 2013’s Jackie Robinson biopic, “42,” which starred Chadwick Boseman as the man who broke the baseball color line, when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947, becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues in the modern era. The film will be based on David Maraniss’ book “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero,” and is being made with the cooperation of Clemente’s family.
– Jimi Hendrix – Paul Greengrass has long wanted to direct a film based on the life of Jimi Hendrix, which Anthony Mackie has always been attached to star. In recent years, there’ve been numerous attempts to bring Hendrix’s life-story to the theatrical screen, with such musician/actors as Lenny Kravitz and Outkast’s Andre Benjamin expressing interest in assuming the starring role of the greatest guitarist in the history of rock music (Benjamin’s project would eventually be made, directed by John Ridley, and released last year, to lukewarm reviews, and not much fanfare. It’s now streaming on Netflix, by the way). Even Eddie Murphy and Will Smith, were once on the carousel of actors interested in playing the late musician. Securing rights to the man’s story has proven to be quite the challenge thanks to Experience Hendrix, the gatekeeper to the musician’s estate, which is run by his stepsister, Janie Hendrix. It has been a key reason why the Greengrass/Mackie film has yet to be made (the Ridley/Benjamin Hendrix film, as you probably recall, was made without the approval of the Hendrix estate, and thus couldn’t use any of his original music). The Greengrass/Mackie project was set up at Legendary Pictures, in correlation with Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, where Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a seminal moment of the original 1969 festival. A writer was hired to work on the script, hoping that it would be approved for production by the Hendrix estate, which has been very protective of Jimi’s story – and rightfully so. Finally, in May of this year, Legendary Pictures reached an agreement with the Hendrix estate, and said they would go ahead with what they hope will be the definitive film on Hendrix’s life, adding that it will be a “large-scale” studio picture, giving it top-shelf treatment. Scott Silver (“The Fighter,” “8 Mile”) was hired to pen the script, with Greengrass still expected to direct (assuming a deal is worked out). And with the Hendrix estate involved, we can expect his original music (not covers of other songs) will be included in the film. But what about Mackie? He’s no longer attached – at least, there’s no deal in place for him to play the part – so it could very well go to some other actor, especially since they’re essentially starting from scratch.
– A biopic of Stephon Marbury, the former NBA star basketball player who would later move to China, and currently plays for the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association, will go into production in the next year. The project, to be titled “My Other Home,” is part of a 5-picture deal between Village Roadshow Pictures Asia and China’s Beijing Hairun Pictures, which was announced at the Beijing International Film Festival this morning. The two companies describe the agreement as “a long-term partnership in the joint development, financing, production and distribution of feature films.” Marbury, who came to Beijing in 2011 and transformed both himself and his Beijing pro team into champions, will star in the film, playing himself, said the press release, in a scripted film that will cover his move to China.
– Mo’ne Davis – Development is underway on a Disney Channel Original Movie titled “Throw Like Mo” which will tell the inspiring story of Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year-old sports prodigy who made history in August 2014 as the first female to pitch a shutout in the Little League. Davis, a member of Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons and the first Little League player to make the cover of Sports Illustrated, will consult on the movie, along with espnW, which has extensively covered her achievements. “Throw Like Mo” will be executive-produced by Emmy Award-nominated producer Debra Martin Chase (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” “The Cheetah Girls,” “Lemonade Mouth”). Sheldon Candis (writer and director of “LUV,” “A Slave in the White House”) and Justin Wilson (“LUV,” “A Slave in the White House”) will pen the script.
– New Edition – Earlier this year, in February, we alerted you to “NE Heartbreak The Movement” – a creative team that comprises of New Edition fans, who hoped to eventually produce a feature film that tells the group’s story. To help raise awareness for the project, The Movement put together what they called a “sneak peek” trailer, asking that, if you’re as much of a New Edition fan as they are, you should help spread the word about the collective’s efforts to bring the R&B group’s story to the big screen. The film was to be directed by Bobby Huntley, an independent filmmaker from Atlanta, and produced by Nikki Wade. The rest of the production team includes cinematographer Calisha Prince; lighting designer Mark Alston; post-production designer and sound editor, Brandon Cordy & hair professional Jameelah Crump. All of them are part of a team of New Edition fans who spent 6 weeks auditioning for the cast, and another 6-week period of rehearsals, to shoot the fan-made trailer embedded below, which they said was created with no budget. That project was unfortunately usurped later in the year by the announcement that BET is planning a miniseries on New Edition, in collaboration with Jesse Collins and his production company (recall Collins signed a first-look deal with BET earlier this year). The currently-untitled miniseries, which will air over 3 nights, will see New Edition members Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant serve as consultants and executive producers. New Edition’s longtime manager Brooke Payne will also serve as a co-producer. With a script by Abdul Williams (“Lottery Ticket”), the untitled film is slated to begin shooting in early 2016. A director has not yet been selected. This will be the first scripted music-focused television movie to air on BET.
– Mary Seacole – Octavia Spencer is attached to star in producer Brunson Green’s “Seacole.” The pair last worked together on “The Help,” which Spencer co-starred in, and Green produced. The project is described as an epic drama that will be directed by acclaimed theater and filmmaker Charlie Stratton, from a screenplay written by Academy Award nominee Dianne Houston and Marnie Dickens. It’ll tell the widely unknown, inspirational true story of the Jamaican doctress, Mary Seacole. Her self-sacrifice on the front lines and fierce, adversarial relationship with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War made her famous in her time. She became a worldwide sensation, eventually becoming the first black female bestselling author. Her story has been lost in the discrimination of history and overshadowed by Nightingale. The film focuses on the fast-paced and bloody action of the Crimean battlefield, Mary’s desire to work with Nightingale, and her unrelenting dedication to care for the British soldiers during and after the war. “Seacole” will show Mary’s stark contrasts and remarkable similarities to Nightingale – the greatest thing dividing them being the color of their skin. Octavia Spencer will of course play Mary Seacole.
– Miki Howard – Teyonah Parris stars in the upcoming TV One Original Movie “The Miki Howard Story” (working title), which is being directed by Christine Swanson. Parris plays the R&B/Jazz singer and actress who enjoyed mainstream success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a string of top 10 hits including “Come Share My Love,” “Baby, Be Mine,” “Love Under New Management,” “Ain’t Nobody Like You” and others. The film, which is produced by Carl Craig and Eric Tomosunas and Rob Robinson of Swirl Films, will cover 30+ years of Howard’s life, both professional and personal trials and triumphs, including her relationships with the men, like Gerald LeVert, who played instrumental roles in her life. Joining Parris in front of the camera is Darius McCrary as Gerald Levert, Gary Dourdan as Augie Johnson, LisaRaye is Sylvia Rhone, Amari Cheatom as Eddie Phelps and Vanessa Bell Calloway as Josephine Howard. Swanson is directing from a script written by Rhonda Baraka, which is based on a yet to be released biography by Miki Howard. It’s set to premiere in 2016.
That’s it… for now! There are more, I’m sure, that I’ve missed here, so feel free to email me at email@example.com with details if you’re involved in any biopic projects not listed here, but should be.
But these are the projects buried in the S&A archives, which was my sole source. However, I won’t be shocked if the total number pushes close to 100+ projects, most of them in Limbo.
So, once again, I ask, which of these yet-to-be-produced projects would you like to see finally made and released? Which do you think should be buried? Which do you think have the best shot at being made?