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50+ Biopic Projects On Black Public Figures 'In Limbo' - Updating The List A Year Later

by Tambay A. Obenson
March 28, 2013 6:26 PM
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There are likely more than 50+, but these are the 50+ I could come up with, based on the S&A archives; as if 50+ isn't enough, considering that the majority of them were first announced in the last 2 - 3 years.

So what the heck is up? A ton of these bio projects, yet so few will actually, eventually see the light of day.

Some of these names even have more than 1 film project in the works that will center on their lives; a few have 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 any will receive the necessary backing, and be seen 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, like Philip Niang's Toussaint L'Ouverture, and Jennifer Hudson's Winnie); another 1 or 2 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 already-announced principal photography start dates, to send the project back into Limbo.

Some of the 50+ 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 each case.

On screen depictions of a few of these names will happen in films centered on other real-life people (in most cases, white people); essentially, they'll be supporting characters in someone else's story.

And on, and on, and on...

As I said already, it really makes one skeptical whenever new bio projects are announced, and each is easily dismissed as more of a dream than something that will eventually be realized.

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.

As I've said repeatedly in previous biopic posts, 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 experiences; or maybe even select a single interesting week or even a day in that person's life. 

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.

Below you'll find the full list of the 50+ biopic projects that have been announced, and a sentence updating you on what we know of each one as of today. 

First, I should note new additions to the list - a list which I first posted a year ago, and which I plan to update on an annual basis, with additions, subtractions, key changes, etc.

Since last year's post, new biopic projects based on the lives of the following figures, have been announced: Paul Robeson (David Harewood is attached to star), Shirley Bassey (director Marc Evans is helming it; most recently it was selected as one of 25 feature narrative projects in IFP's 2012 Project Forum Transatlantic Partners’ Projects), Pelé (Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are developing one based on a recommendation by New York Cosmos soccer club chairman Paul Kemsley, who owns the life story rights to  Pelé), TLC (the VH1 project), and lastly Rafael Padilla (Omar Sy is attached to play the lead role in a French-Language film titled Chocolat, a biopic of the former Cuban-born slave, who became the first black artist in France during the Belle Epoque era).

That's our *freshman* class for 2013. Let's see where each of them will be a year from now when I next update this list again.

Here are the 50+ that were on last year's list, along with our most recent updates on each. A few of them finally moved on to production, and will be released this year. And there's been some movement on others, but nothing to get too excited about yet. However, the majority are still in Limbo:

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.

James Brown - Spike Lee was working on one, but he was replaced by producer Brian Grazer. The project now has Tate Taylor attached to direct.

Jackie Robinson - Chadwick BosemanNicole Beharie are starring in a project directed by Brian Helgeland. It's out in April.

Nina Simone - Zoe Saldana replaced Mary J. Blige in Cynthia Mort's film, which has been shot and should be out this year.

Aretha Franklin - Really, only Aretha Franklin herself has been trying to get one made, with Halle Berry as her #1 choice to star, followed by Jennifer Hudson and Audra McDonald.

Pam Grier - Rights to her autobiography have been optioned and a script adaptation is said to be in development.

Hank Aaron - director Barry Levinson is developing a project, which was first announced last spring.

Bob Marley - Yes, there's the documentary that was released last year, but over the last 10 to 15 years, a number of biopics have been announced, but none ever fully developed: from Warner Bros in 1999, with Rohan Marley and Lauryn Hill attached to star, to one with Jamie Foxx of all people, and then the Weinsteins announced a project in 2008, and then there was another announced in 2010 that would focus on Bob Marley’s 1-year sojourn in London, in 1977; Jennifer Ash was said to be developing it.

MLK - At least 5 projects have been in the works in the last 2 to 3 years that we know of: Paul Greengrass was behind one, as was Lee Daniels; also Oprah’s HBO miniseries, the Steven Spielberg/DreamWorks project, and Wesley Snipes’ planned exploration of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to discredit MLK. The only one that seems to be in movement is Greengrass'. In November of last year, it was announced that the film was alive again, with French distribution company Wild Bunch getting behind it, and super producer Scott Rudin producing, after almost a year in hiatus. 

Tupac - Antoine Fuqua seemed to be close to getting his project off the ground 2 years ago; but then he walked away from it, and there was talk of John Singleton taking over. Last fall,  I received an email from a trusted source, telling me that the project is still very much alive, adding that a production start date of some time in early 2013 was expected, with Morgan Creek still behind the project. The source also noted that Afeni Shakur is co-producing the film. Nothing 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.

Mahalia Jackson Euzhan Palcy was directing one with Fantasia starring. I'd say it's dead, after Jackson's family had second thoughts about Fantasia playing the part. 

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).

Nelson Mandela - We've seen a few films with him as a starring character, but not really strictly about him and his story; Idris Elba's project is said to be a sure-thing, and is scheduled to for release this fall, via The Weinstein Company.

Winnie Mandela - There was Jennifer Hudson's poorly received project which premiered at Toronto 2 years ago. Last spring, T.D. Jakes and his company TDJ Enterprises/Film Bridge International jumped on board to executive produce and develop a Stateside marketing and distribution strategy for Winnie. Nothing since then.

Whitney Houston - Since her recent death, there's been talk (and denial) of a biopic on her life, with names from Rihanna to Vivica Fox playing her. Clive Davis later said it's not happening.

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.

Jimmy Hendrix - There's Andre Benjamin's film, which had long been in development, going all the way back to 2004; John Ridley directed the film which I predicted might make its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year, out of competition. Also, at various times in the past, Lenny Kravitz and Anthony Mackie were said to be attached to Hendrix projects.

Sammy Davis Jr - 2 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. Nothing new since then.

Jesse Owens - Anthony Mackie has long been trying to make a film on Owens, calling it his dream project. No movement.

Bobby Brown - Brown himself and director Michael Pinckney said they were shopping around a Bobby Brown biopic a year ago, and that there was some interest.

Miles Davis - Don Cheadle has been trying to get his project financed for a few years now, and seems to be inching closer and closer every year.

Barbara Jordan - Viola Davis is attached to star as the late congresswoman with Paris Barclay directing.

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.

Toussaint L'Ouverture - Phillip Niang's project, with Jimmy Jean-Luis starring as the titular character debuted a year ago, and has been traveling the film festival circuit since then. No word on whether it'll receive a formal theatrical release in the USA though.

Marcus Garvey - Rumors that Don Cheadle was developing one with Kevin Navayne starring. Cheadle later denied those rumors.

NWA - F. Gary Gray is supposed to be working on one, with Ice Cube producing. It's not clear whether it's actually still in the works.

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; didn't happen.

B.B. King - 2 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 it. Pierce later said that he wouldn't make any film about B.B. King without King's blessing.

Fela - There's Steve McQueen's project which Chiwetel Ejiofor was attached to star in. It's been at least 2 years since that was first announced, maybe more actually. It still might happen. Let's see how their first collab - Twelve Years A Slave - is received.

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 over the last 3 years.

Fillmore Slim - Snoop announced his plans to star as the reknowned 1970s pimp.

Thelonius Monk - a passion project for Denzel Washington, which he said earlier last year that 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 5 to 7 years, with Brett Ratner at one time said to be attached to direct back in 2007, and later German filmmaker Florian Gallenberger. No movement.

Sam Cooke - announced last year, an adaptation of Peter Guralnick's 2005 bio Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Earlier this week, we learned exclusively that Carl Franklin was attached to write and direct.

"Freeway" Rick Ross - a "Traffic"-like biopic on the life of the notorious 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. Most recently, earlier this year, Nick Cannon revealed that he would be starring in the film.

Angela Davis - Shola Lynch's upcoming documentary aside, at one time French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb announced plans about 3 years ago for an Angela Davis biopic which he was reportedly courting Beyonce to star in. Thankfully it never happened. Halle Berry has also long expressed interest in a movie on Davis.

Richard Pryor - Chris Rock was producing a project with Marlon Wayans attached to star. This morning, it was announced that Forest Whitaker had taken over the project (as producer). No news on who might be starring.

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. Last fall, 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 - Spike Lee's been trying to get his project (Save Us, Joe Louis) produced forever.

Jim Brown - Spike Lee previously said he had a project on Brown in the works; earlier last year, Producer Hal Lieberman (Terminator 3: Rise of the MachinesVacancy) 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. Nothing since then.

Dr. S. Allen Counter (the African-American neuroscience professor) -  one of many projects on Will Smith's upcoming slate of films; Debbie Allen is/was also involved in some capacity.

Oprah Winfrey - to be based on Kitty Kelley's 2010 unauthorized bio about her (which we profiled on this blog). Rrights 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.

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.

Buddy Bolden - Another Anthony Mackie project that's been in development for a long time. A year ago, the director, Dan Pritzker, said he wasn't in any rush to get it finished, and gave a timeline of 12-18 months. So maybe a 2014 debut.

Rick James - In 2009, his daughter Ty James hinted at an actor with the initials T.H. in talks to star in a biopic on the musicians 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 some years now, Jamie Foxx was pushing to star in a film on Tyson's life.

Lena Horne - Salli Richardson-Whitfield announced 2 years ago that she and her management company were working on one.

And there are more, I'm sure. But these are 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 would you like to see finally produced and released? Which do you think should be buried? Which do you think have the best shot at being made?

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  • cinephile | July 15, 2013 6:13 PMReply

    Why the hell has there never been a Harriet Tubman big-screen biopic? It's such an amazing story. The amazing Viola Davis should play in it, this would be the role of a lifetime for her.

  • Melissa Graves | April 11, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    Diana! Diana! Diana! Absolutely. Nice to see that people want the truth and haven't fallen for all that Mary Wilson crap. She is a shining example of an American Icon. A BLACK woman who got into the ring and won.

  • Camille | April 11, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    I agree Diana Ross story would be great. And not some tired jealous retread of a bias book (I am talking to you Mary Wilson.) I enjoyed Dreamgirls for what it was: entertainment. This woman's story is so important. The strides she made. For the longest time (especially in the 70's) she was it.

  • Alice | April 11, 2013 2:55 PMReply

    They have twisted and turned her story so much it would be nice to get a definitive biography of Diana Ross. There are quite a few books out (including an autobiography of Berry Gordy). It is definitely a story of determination and triumph. Young girls could use that right now especially with the sad loss of Whitney Houston. In terms of Hollywood and interest across the board you have Diana and Oprah.

  • thefilmstudent | April 1, 2013 8:35 PMReply

    Halle Berry might have longed expressed interest in playing Angela Davis in a biopic, but her "The Wedding" co-star Lynn Whitfield had a big screen biopic in the works at Castle Rock back in the late-90s/early-2000s that never went anywhere sad to say. Now that's an Angela Davis film I would have loved to see! It could still happen if an industrious enough filmmaker and production company take a chance and revive Whitfield's project. An ideal scenario would be setting the project up like the 2001 film "Iris" with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet (both in Oscar-nominated performances) playing the older and younger versions of famed poet Iris Murdoch.

    And there's a Shirley Chisholm project in the works that Angela Bassett has been courted for, possibly the same one that Viola Davis and Regina King have been attached to. Bassett has played so many historical figures that she's become the go-to black actress whenever such a project pops up, and deservedly so. I would love to see her tackle Daisy Bates onscreen in a biopic; she's already played Bates (in a voiceover performance) in a PBS documentary from 2012.

  • Mira | March 29, 2013 11:39 AMReply

    There were talks that Faith Evans would play Florence Ballard in a biopic as well but I was told that Faith wanted to have some control over the direction of the film and it's production so it's still in limbo pending her increased involvement in its development... I actually think she'd be great, but I love Jurnee!

    I agree with Reggie, Viola Davis as Harriet Tubman would be great! Finding someone who would do great with the storytelling and depiction of the Underground Railroad is the foundation that's needed.

  • Reggie | March 28, 2013 6:41 PMReply

    I really want the Aretha biopic to get made - with Jennifer Hudson in the leading role.

    ALSO - one that's not on the list, that I've always wanted to see happen... A Harriet Tubman biopic starring Viola Davis. That has Oscar written all over it. I've YET to see a good movie about the Underground Railroad.

  • urbanauteur | March 29, 2013 11:48 AM

    Spike Lee supposedly has a [Harriet Tubman] bio-pic in the works, along with James McBride's novel- Song yet Sung...

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