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Focus Features’ James Schamus Talks Steve McQueen’s Fela Kuti Biopic

Focus Features' James Schamus Talks Steve McQueen's Fela Kuti Biopic

Acclaimed Nigerian Author Chris Abani Now Writing The Script

With English helmer Steve McQueen set to begin lensing early next year on the sex addiction drama “Shame” featuring the promising trio of Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale, we simply assumed that the project would be trumping the director’s planned biopic on afrobeat pioneer and human rights activist Fela Kuti, based on Michael Veal‘s book “Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon.”

Speaking with the NY Times though, Focus Features CEO James Schamus has revealed it was in fact budgetary concerns that hindered the development of the Kuti biopic but, at the same time, asserted that the project as still very much in the studio’s plans.

Focus is apparently eyeing a African shoot for the story — doing exteriors in Nigeria itself or Ghana and interiors possibly in South Africa — with Schamus revealing that “it’s not a biopic. It’s experimental in form [reportedly with long movements based on Fela’s lengthy songs]. I don’t do passion projects, but this could be a ‘Battle of Algiers’ [Gillo Pontecorvo‘s 1966 film based on the Algerian War] on that level.” Nice.

The piece also reports that while McQueen was originally co-writing the script with U.K. based Nigerian writer Biyi Bandele, a new writer is now seemingly on board with Nigerian author and poet Chris Abani now writing as Schamus “tried to make the budget work.” Unfortunately, there’s no update on the involvement of English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor but we presume he’s still attached to star as the colorful Kuti — we can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

A pioneer in the afrobeat genre — a mix of traditional African music, jazz and funk– and a strong voice in political and human rights activism, Kuti also discovered the Black Power movement while studying in London and frequently aggravated the ruling Nigerian regime, culminating in an attack on his commune in 1977, during which Kuti’s mother was thrown from a window and killed. He was married frequently, with up to 27 wives at one time, and eventually died of an AIDS related illness in 1997.

This ain’t no Dewey Cox story that’s for sure. Fingers crossed Schamus can smooth things out for the project but at least it sounds like it’s something he’s passionate about which bodes well for McQueen, Abani and Ejiofor.

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