Updating this list as I do once a year (I forgot to do it last year; so there was a lot to research and catch up on) to keep you all up-to-date on where each project stands going into the new year, including 18 new additions…
There are more than 60 biopics on the lives of black public figures in some stage of development, based on the S&A archives – the majority of them first announced in the last 0 – 5 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 all receive the necessary backing, and be pushed through production.
Based on my research, 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); others may 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 go wrong, leading to projects being sent 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 range 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 conventional biopics tend to be rather boring. At least I think so.
Below you’ll find the full list of the all the biopics (fiction and non-fiction) we know of that are in some stage of development, with new additions announced since the last time I updated this list in December 2015. Accompanying each name is a sentence or more updating you on what we know of each one as of today. Dig in!
– Arthur Ashe – Writer Krystin Ver Linden and producers Russell Hollander, John Schoenfelder and Russell Ackerman have teamed up to bring Ashe’s life story to the big screen. Few details are available on the project at this time, other than that it will cover both Ashe’s professional and personal lives as the first African American to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the first African American man to be ranked No. 1 in the world. It will also delve into his health problems (he contracted HIV from a blood transfusion), and activism (raising awareness about HIV and AIDS, starting the Arthur Ashe Foundation, protesting the United States’ treatment of Haitian refugees, and more).
– Angela Davis – There are 2 that we know of; first, writer LaToya Morgan (“Shameless,” “Turn: Washington’s Spies”) previously sold an Angela Davis script to film production company The Firm. And second, Codeblack Films acquired the movie rights to “Angela Davis: An Autobiography” with plans to develop and produce an authorized Angela Davis biopic, which will be produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi (“Fruitvale Station,” “Dope”). Sidra Smith, a producer on the 2012 documentary “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners,” and Codeblack CEO Jeff Clanagan will also serve as producers on the project. Angela Davis herself will be involved in the film’s making, serving as executive producer along with her niece Eisa Davis, who is also penning the script. No ETA for either project at this time.
– Harriett Tubman – There are 2 films currently in development. First, for the big screen, from Charles D. King (MACRO), co-producer and co-financier, which will be directed by Seith Mann, starring Tony award winning actress (“The Color Purpler” on Broadway) Cynthia Erivo. Seith Mann will direct from a script penned by Gregory Allen Howard. The second film, which will be made for the small screen (HBO) , will star Viola Davis, who will also produce, based on the 2004 book, “Bound for the Promised Land – Harriet Tubman Portrait: of an American Hero,” by historian Kate Clifford Larson, which draws from a trove of new documents and sources, as well as extensive genealogical research. Kirk Ellis is scripting the adaptation, with Doug Ellin and his Halyard Park production company executive-producing, alongside Amblin TV, Cliff Dorfman, as well as Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, via their JuVee production shingle.
– Bessie Coleman – Producers Philip and Tanya Hart are developing a feature film on aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman who, in 1921, became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license in the USA, who remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation. The Harts’ project – “Flying Free with Bessie Coleman” – will be based on Philip Hart’s own source material from his two Bessie Coleman books for young readers, and a treatment developed by the Harts while at Disney Studios. A 2018 release is eyed for “Flying Free with Bessie Coleman.” It’s a project that’s coming together at a good time, with the strong box office performance, as well as critic and audience reception of “Hidden Figures.”
– Madam C. J. Walker – Octavia Spencer optioned a book on Madam C. J. Walker. She mentioned this in a fall 2016 interview with The New York Times. She didn’t mention which Madam C.J. Walker book specifically, but it’s Madam C.J. Walker! Considered the first self-made African American woman millionaire, she was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, and went on to create specialized hair products for African Americans, which she invented in the very early 1900s. She promoted her products by traveling around the country giving lecture-demonstrations and eventually established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians. She was also known for her philanthropic endeavors. There are a handful of books on Madam C.J. Walker in circulation, but maybe the most prominent is the best-seller, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” the “definitive biography” of Madam C. J. Walker, which was written by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. If Spencer, or any producer was to adapt any book on the life of Walker, one would assume that this is the one they’d go with for obvious reasons. The first comprehensive biography of Walker, it was published in 2002 by Scribner. Where Spencer is on the development of the book she’s optioned, isn’t public information at this time. Whether Spencer would play the title role in the project (at least her latter years, while younger actresses are cast to play her as a child, and then a young woman), or only produce, isn’t public information at this time either. Given that we have no idea how the book Spencer optioned would be adapted, one can’t even say whether it’ll be a birth-to-death biopic, or maybe a film or miniseries that focuses on a specific period of her life.
– Miriam Makeba – A fictionalized feature film account of Makeba’s life is in the works, hailing from Suzanne de Passe and long time business partner, Madison Jones of de Passe Jones Entertainment, in partnership with the Miriam Makeba Estate, Miriam Makeba Foundation and Mama Africa Cultural & Social Trust. Also on the team are Broadway producer Willette Klausner; music producer David Franco; and journalist Marc Le Chat, Makeba’s long-time publicist and confidant. No ETA or further details on the project at this time.
– Dionne Warwick – Destiny’s Child alum LeToya Luckett is attached to star in a Dionne Warwick biopic. Olympia Dukakis and Danny Glover will also appear in the film, which will be titled “Dionne.” Dukakis will play Marlene Dietrich, Warwick’s mentor at the start of her career; and Danny Glover will portray Warwick’s father, Mansel Warwick. As for who will direct, Warwick said last year that her production team is was talks with Mario Van Peebles to helm the film, from a screenplay penned by Randall Jahnson (“The Doors”), based on Warwick’s 2010 autobiography, “My Life as I See It.” The film, which has been in development for about a decade now, will cover Warwick’s early career from 1962 through 1968. AMBI Pictures and Bacardi drinks heiress Monika Bacardi are producing the film.
– Fannie Lou Hamer – While on the red carpet at the 2013 Art Directors Guild Awards gala, actress Alfre Woodard revealed in an interview, when asked what projects she was working on at the time, that she was bringing the life of Fannie Lou Hamer to the small screen in what she said would be a 4-hour film – likely broken up into 2 parts. Hamer was a voting rights activist and civil rights leader, instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was known for her electrifying oratory presence, and relentless pursuit of civil rights for all. Woodard didn’t say if she would be playing Hamer in the 4-hour film, but I would assume so, although likely in her later life. Hamer died on March 14, 1977 at age 59. However, Woodard could also very well just be producing it, with some other actress (or actresses) starring.
– Misty Copeland – New Line acquired Misty Copeland’s memoir “Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina” to adapt to film. The book recounts her early struggles as a young dancer living in a welfare motel with her family, providing an insider’s look at the cutthroat world of professional ballet, telling a moving story of dreams and perseverance. The studio brought writer Gregory Allen Howard (“Remember the Titans”) on board to script the adaptation as well as executive produce, with Adam Shankman and Jennifer Gibgot of Offspring Entertainment producing alongside Philip Sandhaus. When the adaptation was first announced in 2014, Stephanie Allain and Lenore Kletter where attached to adapt the book. The planned feature film is one of a handful of Misty Copeland film and TV projects we know of, including another bio from scribe and actor Tracy Oliver (“Barbershop 3,” “Survivor’s Remorse,” “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”) who has teamed up with Copeland for a dance-focused drama series inspired by her life, which is currently set up at Fox. The potential series won’t tell Copeland’s story exactly, but will borrow elements from her life to tell a fictionalized story that centers on a diverse group of aspiring dancers who are in fierce competition for slots in the most prestigious American Ballet Theatre company.
– Prince – No scripted biopic, but there’s a Prince documentary in the works titled “Prince: R U Listening?” from acclaimed Emmy and Peabody-award winning director and producer Michael John Kirk, known for his stellar work on the PBS documentary series “Frontline.” The film will chart Prince’s early years and rise to super-stardom, as seen through the eyes of his bandmates, friends and family, including contributors Dez Dickerson, Prince’s first guitar player, Andre Cymone, Prince’s close friend and original bassist, as well as Bono, Mick Jagger, Billy Idol, Lenny Kravitz and Sheila E. to name a few. Swiss distributor Ascot Elite Entertainment Group has has acquired all rights to what is described as a high-profile independently-produced documentary, from US international sales and finance company 13 Films. A late 2017 release is eyed.
– Dock Ellis – A scripted featured film on Ellis’ life is in development from David Permut (“Hacksaw Ridge” producer), via his Permut Presentations shingle. It will be based on Joey Poach’s spec script “Dock.” Dock Ellis’ son, Dock Ellis III, will serve as a consultant on the project. No other details are available at this time.
– Donna Hylton – Rosario Dawson is attached to play Hylton, the women’s rights activist, in a feature film based on her memoir, which also details the abuse she lived with as a child, by her adoptive father, who was a pedophile, and the 27-year prison sentence she served (released in 2012) for her involvement, at the age of 19, in a kidnap and murder of a real estate agent. After leaving prison, earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Behavioral Science and a Master of Arts Degree in English from Mercy College, Hylton became a community health advocate for Coming Home, a program that addresses the medical and psychosocial needs of formerly incarcerated people during the transition from prison or jail back into the community, at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. She’s also an active member of the Coalition for Women Prisoners, a statewide alliance of individuals and organizations dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system as it affects women, children, and communities. Hylton is also an advocate with STEPS to End Family Violence. A writer and a director (who will be both be women) are being sought to adapt Hylton’s memoir.
– Henrietta Lacks – HBO announced that its film adaptation of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” will premiere in April 2017, although it hasn’t given a specific day in April. But an April debut makes it very much eligible for Primtetime Emmy consideration this year (the eligibility period ends May 2017). Oprah Winfrey stars in this adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s critically acclaimed, bestselling nonfiction book of the same name. The film tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line. Told through the eyes of her daughter, Deborah Lacks (played by Winfrey), the film chronicles her search to learn about the mother she never knew and understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks’ cancerous cells in 1951 led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, changing countless lives and the face of medicine forever. Joining Winfrey in front of the camera are some stellar actors including Renee Elise Goldsberry, Courtney B. Vance, Leslie Uggams, Rocky Carroll, Rose Byrne, Reg E. Cathey, Reed Birney, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, John Douglas Thompson, Adriane Lenox, Kyanna Simone Simpson and Roger Robinson. Vance plays Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield, a slick Southern con artist who tries to insert himself into the Lacks’ legal matters; Uggams is Sadie, Henrietta’s cousin and best friend; Cathey plays Zakariyya, Henrietta’s youngest son and Deborah’s (Winfrey) brother; Birney is Dr. George Gey, the scientist who harvested the HeLa cells from Henrietta (Goldsberry); Santiago-Hudson is Dr. Pattillo, a doctor and professor of gynecology who facilitated Rebecca Skloot’s (Byrne) communication with the Lacks family; Thompson plays Lawrence, Henrietta’s oldest son and Deborah’s older brother; Lenox is Barbara, Lawrence’s wife who helped raised Deborah and Sonny (Carroll) after Henrietta’s death; and finally Robinson is Day Lacks, Henrietta’s widower and father of their children. George C. Wolfe directs from his screenplay adaptation of Skloot’s book.
– Grace Jones – BBC Films has commissioned production on a new docu-drama on Grace Jones from director Sophie Fiennes, the first of its kind. Described as an observational portrait, the feature film is titled “Grace Jones – The Musical of My Life,” and it’ll weave a multi-narrative journey through the private and public realms of the legendary singer and performer, mixing intimate personal footage with unique staged musical sequences. Incredibly, this will be the first comprehensive feature film (fiction or non-fiction) on the personal and professional life of Grace Jones. A 2017 premiere date can be expected.
– Marlin Briscoe – Canadian actor Lyriq Bent of “Book of Negroes”fame is set to star in the West Omaha Films and Falconer Pictures feature film “The Magician, the Marlin Briscoe Story,” in which the actor will play the Omaha, Nebraska native who, in 1968, became the first black starting quarterback in modern pro football history. A project that’s actually been in development for several years, is written by Gregory Allen Howard (“Remember the Titans” and “Ali”), although no director is attached at this time. Marlin Briscoe made history on October 6, 1968, starting at quarterback for the Denver Broncos during what was his rookie NFL season, in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He went on to play for the Miami Dolphins, with whom he won two Super Bowls as a wide receiver. He was part of the 1972 undefeated team. He also played for the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots. After retiring in 1976, Briscoe moved to Los Angeles, where he became addicted to drugs, eventually becoming broke and homeless. The film will cover mostly his latter years, including his subsequent recovery. Briscoe, now 70 years old, lives in Long Beach, California, and is aware of the film. In fact, he’s met with Lyriq Bent as well as the film’s producers on the making of the film.
– Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. – Sam Pollard (long-time Spike Lee editor, as well as director and producer in his own right) is taking on the life of another public figure in a new documentary. “Maynard,” the much-anticipated documentary film, which is being made about the life and times of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard H. Jackson, is currently in post-production, as we learned last month. The documentary about the person and legacy of Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. will tell the story of the man, the politician, and the game changer; and will strive to answer the question: “How did Maynard do it?” Mayor Jackson was known as a charismatic and compassionate leader who served a record three terms as Atlanta’s mayor. Among his many successes, he earned his place in Atlanta history books for building the world’s busiest airport and for leading the affirmative action charge across these United States. The objective is to tell the Maynard story that details his life and to motivate other young politicians that one honest and dedicated individual can make a difference. A 2018 premiere is expected.
– Bayard Rustin – Q. Terah Jackson is working on a feature length script on Rustin’s life titled simply “Rustin,” which was a 2015 Film Independent Screenwriting Lab participant – an intensive 4-week program designed to help writers take their current scripts to the next level in a nurturing and challenging creative environment. “Rustin’s” logline reads: Working in the political shadows of a young Dr. King, Bayard Rustin endures personal and public attacks for being gay in order to orchestrate the March on Washington of 1963. Jackson’s “Rustin” was also a 2014 WGA Feature Access Project honoree, so this is a project that’s off to a strong start, and is one to certainly look out for in another couple of years. It’s on its way with a solid pedigree, but much still has to happen, most importantly, talent needs to become attached, and it has to be financed.
– Samuel Marlowe – The CW is developing a period crime drama inspired by the real-life black private investigator, Samuel Marlowe, who was the inspiration for author Raymond Chandler’s famed fictional character Philip Marlowe, who’s been played in film adaptations, by several actors over the decades, from Humphrey Bogart to Robert Mitchum. The real Samuel Marlowe allegedly was the first black private detective licensed by the city of Los Angeles; this was in the 1930s. He was a Jamaican immigrant and World War I veteran, and is said to have corresponded with writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett for decades. He was born in 1890, in Montego Bay, Jamaica. According to an LA Times obituary, he served in Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, a World War I fighting brigade that guarded the Suez Canal. After the war, Marlowe immigrated to the U.S., settling in Los Angeles, where he became a private detective. The CW drama based on Marlowe’s career is described as “a character-based procedural with a modern feel and contemporary soundtrack,” although it’ll be set in 1937 Los Angeles. “Marlowe” will follow Samuel Marlowe “from the mansions and red carpets of Beverly Hills, to the jazz clubs and back alleys of Little Harlem, where he navigates crimes, mysteries and social issues ripped from today’s headlines through the prism of 1937 Los Angeles,” says the press release. Devon Greggory (“CSI Cyber,” “State of Affairs”) will pen the script and co-executive produce the project, which hails from Aaron Kaplan’s Kaplan Entertainment shingle. Kaplan will also exec produce.
– Lee Daniels – Yes, that Lee Daniels, the producer, writer, director (“Empire,” “The Butler,” “Precious”). Lee Daniels revealed in an interview with Billboard last fall that he was developing an autobiographical movie musical based on his life, which he said he was shopping around. In a conversation that was more about his then upcoming Fox series, “Star,” which he described as “the complete antithesis of ‘Empire’,” Daniels was asked if there was another musical scene or genre that he thought would be right for a TV show. His reply: “My publicist will kill me, but I’m in talks about doing a musical film about my life. I’ve had a pretty interesting life. I’ve come from the projects. I’ve been homeless. It’ll have original music and sort of be like Fellini’s ‘8 1/2’ or ‘All That Jazz.'” Any comparisons to Fellini’s “8 1/2” certainly gets attention. And “All That Jazz” is no slouch either. But both demonstrate the scope of Daniels’ vision for the project, should it ever become a reality as he imagines it.
– Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor – The writer and National Public Radio (NPR) commentator who taught the world about the Gullah food and culture of coastal South Carolina, died last September in the Bronx. She was 79. Grosvenor first gained attention with her 1970 book, “Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl” (1970), often referred to as an autobiographical cookbook, using her “Lowcountry” rural Allendale County, S.C. cuisine to teach the world about the contributions made by people of African descent globally. Julie Dash is currently working on a feature documentary on Smart-Grosvenor’s life, titled “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.” By the way, Smart-Grosvenor’s also appeared in few films, including Dash’s own “Daughters of the Dust,” and in “Beloved” (1998), based on Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel of the same name. A project we first alerted you to in 2014, Dash’s film on Smart-Grosvenor documents the life of writer, poet, actress, and culinary anthropologist, who also produced award-winning documentaries like 1983’s “Slave Voices: Things Past Telling,” and “Daufuskie: Never Enough Too Soon,” and went on to host NPR’s award-winning documentary series “Horizons” from 1988 until 1995, when it was discontinued. Born in Fairfax, South Carolina, growing up in a Gullah family, Smart-Grosvenor traveled all over the world as editor for Elan magazine, made appearances on several television programs including “The Today Show” and “Nightline,” and wrote magazine columns for Ebony, Jet, Essence, Publishers Weekly and Redbook to name a few. She also has served on the Literary Task Force for the South Carolina Arts Commission. She also wrote a “food folk” opera titled “Nyam,” a Gullah word meaning “to eat.” Dash’s film (a feature documentary that will also include some re-enactments) on her life is still in development. 2 years ago, she launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise $55,000 which was to go towards the film’s completion; In the end, 61% of the goal (or about $33,000) was raised. No word on how much progress has been made on the film thus far, but it was expected to premiere in 2017.
– Claressa “T-Rex” Shields – Last summer, Shielfs successfully defended her London 2012 boxing gold in the women’s middleweight division, beating the Netherlands’ Nouchka Fontijn in a unanimous decision. And with that win, Shields, making history yet again, also became the first USA boxer, male or female, ever to win two Olympic gold medals! And she’s seemingly just getting started! In 2012, then 17-year-old Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, became the youngest woman – and one of the first women – to ever box in the Olympics. Her story was the subject of a 2015 documentary titled “T-Rex,” which is currently on home video in the USA. In addition to the documentary on her life, announced in last year, Universal Pictures teamed with Michael De Luca Productions to acquire life rights to Claressa’s story with plans to produce a scripted feature film which is being framed as “Rocky-esque.” Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) was later tapped to script and possibly direct the film. This could be a breakout role for a young up-and-coming actress. No ETA at this time.
– Stephanie St. Clair – Janet Jackson is executive producing the story of the 1920’s New York City mobster, a.k.a Queenie – the first and only woman gangster during Prohibition, set against the backdrop of The Cotton Club. Born Stephanie St. Clair (1886–1969), Queenie (photo above) was a mob boss who ran numerous criminal enterprises in Harlem, NYC in the early part of the 20th century. She even bumped heads with the then Italian mafia, and managed to stay entirely independent. You might recall that in Bill Duke’s gangland crime drama “Hoodlum” (1997), she was played by Cicely Tyson. Kenny Leon is attached to direct the Janet Jackson-produced film based on Queenie’s life. The project is set up at Lifetime.
– 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 has been in development 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. There’s a second project – director John Scheinfeld (“The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” “Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson” and more) titled, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, produced by Spencer Proffer, via his Meteor 17 company. That film is done, and is currently touring the international film festival circuit. It screens at the Pan African Film Festival later this month.
– Destiny’s Child – Courtesy of the Sony email hack-attack a couple of years ago, we learned that the studio had some 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 did 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 3 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 2 years ago, that he planned to direct a feature film based on the life of Paul Robeson, saying that it would indeed be his next feature directorial effort (although he’s currently developing “Widows”). Harry Belafonte was 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. No word on whether either project is still alive.
– Vanessa del Rio – 3 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. No word on where the project currently stands.
– 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.
– Bobby Womack – A biopic based on the life of singer/songwriter, who died in 2014, is in development, under the supervision of his longtime manager and friend Don Smalls. Smalls said in 2015 that he already had 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).
– Antoinette Tuff – T.D. Jakes’ budding media empire can now add a movie based on the life of Tuff which was set up at Sony, and which will tell the real-life story of the extraordinary human drama Tuff lived through, grabbing headlines around the world. The bookkeeper, an eight-year veteran of the DeKalb County school district, talked suspect Michael Brandon Hill into surrendering after a brief standoff with police, last summer. Faced with the armed 20-year-old who told her he was off his medication for a mental disorder, Tuff shared stories of heartbreak from her own life to help calm him down. After that brave incident, Antoinette became a media sensation (and rightfully-so). She even visited with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, met with global business and political leaders to tell her story and share her wisdom on how to use judgment in crisis and not just pass judgment in a heated moment. She also has started a non-profit organization, called Kids on the Move for Success, and has written a book titled “Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring True Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege,” which is now available for purchase at your favorite on- or offline bookstore.
– Darlene Love – Singer/actress Toni Braxton was set to star as Love in OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s 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” was to tell 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.
– Bob Marley and the Wailers – A film 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 was 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 was up at Mandalay with the above names attached, meaning it may or may not happen. We’ll just have to wait and see.
– Carlton Pearson – Chiwetel Ejiofor is attached to star in a Pearson biopic, with Condola Rashad, Danny Glover and Robert Redford joining him in a film with Netflix’s backing titled “Come Sunday.” The story tells of evangelical minister Carlton Pearson, who built one of the largest churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then lost everything as a result of his evolving faith. Ejiofor is attached to star as Pearson, who stirred up controversy a decade ago, with his revelation that, essentially, there is no hell. Branded a heretic by his peers, Pearson would eventually lose almost everything, and would have to fight to not only rebuild his church, but also his family, as well as find and establish his own personal path. Glover will play Gilbert Pearson – Carlton Pearson’s uncle; Robert Redford will play Oral Roberts in the film – the connection there being that Pearson attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, where he was mentored by Oral Roberts; and Rashad will play Gina, Carlton Pearson’s wife. Titled “Come Sunday” (it’s previously known as “Heretics”), the film will be directed by Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”). With this solid growing cast, and the material they have to work with, this is certainly a project to watch for in the coming year.
– Black Mafia Family – Two years ago, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson shared that he was producing a film on the B.M.F. – an acronym which stands for the notorious Black Mafia Family; a drug cartel that was created in Detroit, Michigan in the late 1980s, by Demetrius “Big Meech” and Terry Flenory. Over the following decade, their organization grew into a hugely successful nationwide enterprise. Soon after, they began to use their financial gains to branch out into other businesses, like creating a hip-hop music label called BMF Entertainment, promoting the careers of a few artists, some fairly well known, like Young Jeezy. But the castle they built all came crashing down in the mid-2000s, when they were busted, indicted and convicted on charges of running a criminal enterprise that allegedly grossed over $270 million during the period of its existence. Both brothers were sentenced to prison for 30 years to life. Other members of their organization would also face jail sentences. That’s the shortened version of their story – one that’s long been rumored to be the subject of a feature film that has yet to materialize, 5 years after we first alerted you to it on this blog.
– Shirley Bassey – Ruth Negga starred in a 2011 BBC telepic on Bassey’s life. But there’s a second project in the works from director Marc Evans. 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. The project is listed as still in development.
– Marvin Gaye – Over the years, there’ve been at least 4 Marvin Gaye projects we know of. At one time, it seemed that the Jesse L. Martin project, directed by Julien Temple, was going to happen, but filming stalled due to a backer pulling out of the project. In 2013, it was announced that Focus Features International, the company that picked up the project, and shopped it at the Cannes Film Festival that year, exited 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, we haven’t heard or read anything to confirm that production is back on track. In the fall of 2015, director F. Gary Gray teased, while talking to TMZ, that, while he was not exactly looking forward to making another biopic (after “Straight Outta Compton”), one that would make him change his mind is if he were asked to make a film on the life of Marvin Gaye. TMZ caught up with him in LA, and asked what he’d like to do as a follow-up to “Compton.” “All the things he talked about in his albums and what is going on is relevant now,” Gray said, calling Marvin Gaye his favorite artist. “He was ahead of his time. His story is somewhat Shakespearean.” About 3 months after that interview, an exclusive on Roger Friedman’s Showbiz 411 blog said that Gray had made a deal with producer Suzanne dePasse and Motown founder Berry Gordy to bring Marvin Gaye’s life to the big screen, adding that Gaye’s family was/is involved as well. In addition, I also dug into the S&A archives for any connection between Gray and Gaye in the past, and found a 2009 post in which we reported that F. Gary Gray was indeed attached to direct a Marvin Gaye biopic, with C. Gaby Mitchell (“Blood Diamond”) on-board to write the script. No studio was attached at the time, with producers of the project shopping to studios and financiers a package that included complete music rights to Marvin Gaye’s catalog, with plans to have the star of the film lip sync to Gaye’s recordings. No actor was attached. Gray, who had long wanted to tell Gaye’s story (and apparently still very much does), faced music rights problems. “This is my passion project, the one that I wake up every day thinking about,” Gray told Variety in 2008, adding, “I’m going to tell a truthful story, and there is no shortage of drama and extreme conflict in a relationship with his father that at its core is Shakespearean and tragic.This isn’t the average biopic of a rock star wrestling with drugs and women, but a man whose musical awakening became a call to action that questioned critical issues like a costly foreign war, recession, environment, inequality – issues that are relevant now.” The music rights were eventually secured for the project, but a film was never made, very likely because no studio would finance it. It was also around this time that a rival Marvin Gaye film titled “Sexual Healing,” that was to be produced by the late James Gandolfini, and was to star Jesse L. Martin, was in development. That project, which was to focus on the singer’s “declining” years (unlike Gray’s film, which would cover Gaye’s entire life), didn’t have rights to Gaye’s full music library. That film would also face challenges, and many years later, still isn’t complete, despite actually beginning filming 4+ years ago. To start, Marvin Gaye’s children, Nona Gaye, Frankie Gaye, and Marvin Gaye III, all opposed the making of this film. Berry Gordy and Janis Gaye, Marvin’s ex-wife, also opposed it. And last year, it was announced that a feature-length documentary on Marvin Gaye was in the works. Noah Media Group and Greenlight are developing a documentary titled “Marvin, What’s Going On?” which will center on making of Gaye’s seminal 1971 album of the same name. It’s also a project that has the full support of Gaye’s children and former wife, who will also contribute to the film, which is being called “the defining portrait of this visionary artist and his impeccable album.” Production was scheduled to begin late last year with Gabriel Clarke and Torquil Jones co-directing, with their Noah Media Group partners John McKenna and Victoria Barrell producing. It’ll include exclusive interviews with Motown stars and never-before-seen archive footage courtesy of Gaye’s children and former wife. And finally, in November of last year, Jamie Foxx told The Hollywood Reporter that he was also tackling Marvin Gaye’s life story, executive producing what will be a limited series. Suzanne de Passe and Madison Jones of de Passe Jones Entertainment are also on board. Recall earlier in this same post I mentioned that director F. Gary Gray had made a deal with producer Suzanne dePasse and Motown founder Berry Gordy to bring Marvin Gaye’s life to the big screen, adding that Gaye’s family was/is involved as well. I can only assume it’s the same project, although it’ll apparently now be a TV miniseries instead of a feature film.
– 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, 2 summers ago, 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. 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 were optioned in 2012, and a script adaptation was said to be in development. No news since then.
– Hank Aaron – director Barry Levinson was developing a project, which was first announced in the spring of 2012. No news since then.
– 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. But earlier this year, among the announcements made during Lifetime network’s TCA tour presentation was a film based on the last few years of Michael Jackson’s life, tentatively titled “Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland,” which will be told through the eyes of his bodyguards. Jackson will be played by Navi, considered the world’s most prominent Michael Jackson impersonator. The project is based on the book “Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days,” written by Motown head Berry Gordy whose former creative assistant, Suzanne de Passe, will be the executive producer. Chad L. Coleman (“The Walking Dead”) will co-star, playing one of MJ’s most trusted bodyguards, Bill Whitefield. Elizabeth Hunter wrote the script, and Dianne Houston is set to direct. Production begins this month in Los Angeles, with the movie set to premiere sometime later this year. Also, Dan Harmon (executive producer of 2015’s critically acclaimed stop motion feature film “Anomalisa,” from Charile Kaufman), will tackle another potential work of surrealism via stop-motion: a Michael Jackson story, BUT told through the eyes of his famous pet chimpanzee, Bubbles. Harmon acquired the screenplay for “Bubbles,” as the film will be titled, penned by Isaac Adamson. Official synopsis: “A baby chimp is adopted by the pop star Michael Jackson. Narrating his own story, Bubbles the Chimp details his life within The King of Pop’s inner circle through the scandals that later rocked Jackson’s life and eventually led to Bubbles’ release.” The script was a Black List top pick – a survey of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays.
– 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 would be necessary to make the kind of film that they believe Jackson deserves, and said that a small percentage of that figure had already been raised. No news since then.
– ODB – RZA was allegedly 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. No word if it’s still alive.
– 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 – 5 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! Skip ahead to January 2017 to news of another (or possibly the same) Sammy Davis Jr. project in the works, with the approval of the Sammy Davis Jr. estate. The project, a feature film that will be based on Davis’ 1965 memoir “Yes I Can: The Story Of Sammy Davis, Jr.,” is being led by Lionel Richie, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mike Menchel.
– Barbara Jordan – Viola Davis is attached to star as the late congresswoman with Paris Barclay directing. No movement there since that announcement 3 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 2 years ago (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 a couple of years ago, he has a script for. But no director nor financing yet… that we know of.
– Sam Cooke – Announced 3 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 in 2015, 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.
– 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 then in 2014, Lee Daniels was announced as director, with The Weinstein Company producing, and Mike Epps starring. As of our last update on the biopic, Tracy Morgan was in negotiations to play Redd Foxx in the film, joining a cast that also included Taraji P. Henson playing Richard Pryor’s mother; Eddie Murphy as Pryor’s father; Oprah Winfrey as Pryor’s grandmother; Kate Hudson as Jennifer Lee Pryor, Richard Pryor’s 4th wife; and, of course, Mike Epps in the starring role, as Richard Pryor.
– 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 tapped to star.
– Joe Louis – Bill Duke was prepping a project on the boxer (this was announced in 2015). Previously… Spike Lee had been trying to get his project (“Save Us, Joe Louis”) produced forever. Also, announced in 2014, 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 was also involved in some capacity. Nothing new to report here.
– 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 told us a couple of years ago that he was finished with it. The actor was replaced by the British actor who played “Downton Abbey’s” first black character, Gary Carr. No update since then.
– 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. In 2014, Tyson himself said that he’d been meeting with Foxx, and the two were working together to bring the project to life. Specifically, Tyson revealed publicly that the project was indeed in motion, and he hoped principal photography kicked off some time in 2015 or soon thereafter. Nothing since then. The obvious question here still is: how will a 49 year old Jamie Foxx 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 49, 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 – Four 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 2015, 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 was set for 2016. No word on that project. In the fall of 2016, actress Tamala Jones announced that she was also producing a Tammi Terrell biopic, 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 appeared 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 was scripting the adaptation, with filming also set to also begin in 2016. No word on where it stands.
– 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.
– Leo Africanus – Mauritanian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, revealed in 2015 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, has been in development at Legendary Pictures – the same company that backed 2013’s Jackie Robinson biopic, “42,” which starred Chadwick Boseman. TheClemente 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 has been released, although to lukewarm reviews, and not much fanfare). 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 2015, Legendary Pictures reached an agreement with the Hendrix estate, and said they would go ahead with what they hoped would be the definitive film on Hendrix’s life, adding that it would 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 was 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.
– Mary Seacole – Octavia Spencer has been 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.
That’s it… for now! There are more, I’m sure, that I’ve missed here, so feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with details if you’re involved in any biopic projects not listed here, but should be, and I’ll update the list.
But these are the projects that I know of that are still in Limbo. 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?