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The Focus Features, Andrew Dosunmu ‘Fela Kuti’ Biopic Is Actually Not A Biopic

The Focus Features, Andrew Dosunmu 'Fela Kuti' Biopic Is Actually Not A Biopic

Schamus also talked up a film about Fela Kuti, the Nigerian afrobeat king, that he has in long-term development. “It’s not a biopic,” he said. “It’s experimental in form,” with long movements based on Fela’s rambling songs. “I don’t do passion projects, but this could be a ‘Battle of Algiers,’ on that level.”

Words from now-ex Focus Features founder and CEO James Schamus, in a New York Times profile from 2010! 
We clearly missed this in 2010, and I only came across it because of yesterday’s news that Schamus will be leaving Focus Features, to be replaced by FilmDistrict founder and CEO Peter Schlessel in a move that will see Focus Features broaden its portfolio beyond the production and distribution of so-called “specialty product” – news that sent me on a research mission to find out what I could about 2 Schamus-led Focus Features projects that are of interest to this blog – one of them being the aforementioned Fela Kuti feature film (the Africa First shorts program being the other), which Andrew Dosunmu (who’s sophomore feature, Mother Of George, is currently in theaters) was recently hired by Focus Features to direct.
Steve McQueen was originally set to direct it, but Dosunmu replaced him.
I bring this up now because, for as long as we’ve known about the project, we’ve always assumed that it was going to be a biopic based on Fela Kuti’s life – at least I have. So Schamus’ words above that it would be “experimental in form… with long movements based on Fela’s rambling songs,” is certainly news and intriguing to me.

I’ll have to sit with this bit of news for a bit, but an experimental piece, with Battle Of Algiers-level comparisons (as a passion project), I can now understand why Steve McQueen was hired for the directing job in the first place, given his artist background and resume, especially his first film, Hunger.

It also makes sense that Dosunmu is now replacing McQueen, as he himself also directs in a style that many have labeled as “experimental” in nature – see Restless City as an example.

I initially wondered what impact the more lyrical, deliberate styles of both McQueen and Dosunmu would have on a Fela Kuti biopic (that is when I thought it was going to be a more conventional biopic, with each director’s own stamp on it). I’d expect a film on the life of Fela to be bouncy and bustling with energy, vibrancy and even immediacy, and epic in scope – terms I wouldn’t necessarily use to describe the works of either filmmaker.

But, again, given Schamus’ description of the style in which the film will be made, either director makes perfect sense! Of course I’m assuming that, 3 years later, the project’s blueprint is still the same, and nothing has drastically changed.

Nigerian author and poet Chris Abani wrote the script with Schamus, but finding the money to get the film produced has long been the project’s most challenging hurdle. 
As was shared in the New York Times piece, “Filming in Nigeria would give the right look, but Ghana might be easier, and perhaps they could shoot interiors in South Africa. ‘It’s too expensive,’ he [Schamus] said, ‘but we’ll figure it out.'”
Whether or not they’ve been able to “figure it out” now with Andrew Dosunmu now at the helm, is not public information.

The film has no connection to the Bill T. Jones Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Fela!, but will instead be based on Michael Veal’s 2000 book Fela: The Life and Times of An African Musical Icon, and has been adapted to script format by Nigerian author Chris Abani and James Schamus, who penned the most recent drafts.

Whether Chiwetel Ejiofor will still star as Fela isn’t yet known, however, given the fact that he’s seemingly *hot* at the moment, thanks to the critical acclaim 12 Years A Slave has been receiving, after its Telluride and Toronto premieres, I wouldn’t be surprised if an announcement is eventually made, revealing his attachment.

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