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55 Biopics On Black Public Figures 'In Limbo' - Updating The List A Year Later (Adds, Status, Etc)

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act August 27, 2013 at 2:14PM

Revisting this post as I do at least once a year to see where the list stands...
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marvin gaye

Revisting this post as I do at least once a year to see where the list stands...

There are more than 50 biopics on the lives of black public figures, based on the S&A archives - the majority of them first announced in the last 2 - 3 years, and, unfortunately, so few of them 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); 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, especially in the current climate.

But then a question worth asking is whether we really need, or rather if there's a large enough audience for films on every single one of these men and women.

I'm much less interested in what I call birth-to-death stories, and would prefer to see filmmakers tackle specific periods of a subject's life - maybe cover a period of years in which the person being profiled was at their career peak, or went through some tragic, life-changing 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. At least I think so.

Below you'll find the full list of the 50 biopic projects we know of, with new additions announced since the last time I updated this list, and a sentence updating you on what we know of each one as of today. 

First, I should note new additions to the list.

Since my last update, new biopic projects based on the lives of the following figures, have been announced: playwright, author, activist Lorraine Hansberry, with Taye Hansberry (grand niece of Lorraine Hansberry), and Numa Perrier (The Couple) penning the script to a film that will star Taye in the title role, and will be directed by Perrier; 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; and finally, Writer/director JD Walker is developing an Oscar Micheaux biopic.

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 has been some movement on others, but nothing to get too excited about yet. However, the majority are still in Limbo:

Paul Robeson - David Harewood is attached to star, with Sydney Tamiia Poitier (daughter of Sidney Poitier) playing his, Eslanda ("Essie") Goode RobesonLouis Gossett Jr. will portray W.E.B. Du Bois in the independently-produced film which is to be directed by South African director Darrell Roodt (Winnie). Shooting was set to begin this month. 

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), as well as the 15th edition of Strategic Partners, an international summit where projects are paired up with producers, taking place during the Atlantic Film Festival from Sept 13-16 in Halifax, Canada.

Pelé - Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are developing the project based on a recommendation by New York Cosmos soccer club chairman Paul Kemsley, who owns the life story rights to  Pelé. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist have been hired to pen the screenplay, with the possibility of directing the film as well. Principal photography is scheduled to start in Brazil next year, with the goal being to release the film prior to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

TLC - The VH1 project. In the telepic, Keke Palmer is Rozonda "ChilliThomasDrew Sidora is Tionne "T-BozWatkins and and Lil' Mama is playing the late Lisa "Left Eye" LopesCharles Stone III (DrumlinePaid in FullMr. 3000) directs, from a script penned by screenwriter Kate Lanier (What’s Love Got To Do With ItSet it OffBeauty Shop). It debuts in November.

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. No word on any movement on this one. Sy's been quite busy lately, with a handful of projects.

Marvin Gaye - of the 4+ Marvin Gaye projects we know of, the only one that appears to still have life will star Jesse L Martin directed by Julien Temple. Most recently, in June, it was announced that Focus Features International, the company that picked up the project, and shopped it at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, pulled out of the production, which was then put on hiatus (reasons weren't clear, although I figured it had something to do with financing), despite a reported 70% of the shoot already complete. Since that June report, I haven't heard or read anything to confirm that production is back on track.

James Brown - Spike Lee was working on one, but he was replaced by producer Brian Grazer, who brought Tate Taylor to direct. Yesterday it was announced that Chadwick Boseman has been selected to star in the film, with a fall shoot date planned. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Nelsan Ellis, are said to be in talks for roles.

Jackie Robinson - Chadwick Boseman starred in 42, directed by Brian Helgeland. It was released this spring.

Nina Simone - Zoe Saldana replaced Mary J. Blige in Cynthia Mort's film, which has yet to debut, although I fully expected it to premiere at a festival this year. It still could I suppose. The year isn't over. Although the high profile festivals have already come and gone, or have announced their fall lineups (sans Nina). Maybe AFI will take it. If not, look to Sundance 2014.

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.

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 in the spring of 2012.

Bob Marley - Yes, there's the documentary that was released last year, but over the last 10 to 15 years, a number of scripted 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, 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. No word on any movement on a Bob Marley biopic from/by anyone right now.

MLK - At least 5 projects have been in the works in the last 2 to 3 years that we know of: Paul Greengrass is behind one - Memphis, which we learned most recently, that Forest Whitaker is in talks to star in. Lee Daniels was replaced by Ava DuVernay on Selma, with David Oyelowo attached to star; also Oprah’s HBO miniseries with Steven Spielberg/DreamWorks; and Wesley Snipes’ planned exploration of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to discredit MLK. The two that seem to be in movement are Greengrass' and DuVernay's.

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 however.

Michael Jackson - around the time of his death, there was talk both here in the USA and in the UK of Michael Jackson biopics being in development (of course we got a couple of documentaries). Nothing definite.

Mahalia Jackson Euzhan Palcy was all set to direct one with Fantasia starring. I'd say it's dead, after Jackson's family had second thoughts about Fantasia playing the part. Nothing definite here either.

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 for release this fall, via The Weinstein Company, potentially as an Oscar contender.

Winnie Mandela - There's Jennifer Hudson's poorly-received project which premiered at Toronto 2 years ago; so it's been in distribution limbo for a while. Last year, 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. About 4 months ago, it was announced that Image Entertainment had acquired all USA rights to Winnie, for a fall 2013 release. So it's finally on its way to theaters.

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 said to be on the short list of actresses to play her. Clive Davis later said that he wasn't aware of any Whitney biopics.

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. It didn't. But it will premiere at TIFF next month - finally!

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. Just last week, it was reported that Lee Daniels has been circling an HBO Sammy Davis Jr. project. It's not clear whether the HBO project has 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!

Jesse Owens - Anthony Mackie has long been trying to make a film on Owens, calling it his dream project. The project is still alive, as financing is being sought.

Bobby Brown - Brown himself and director Michael Pinckney said they were shopping around a Bobby Brown biopic a year or so ago, and that there was some interest. No movement there.

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. Most recently, in June, he put out a call for young, black, talented trumpet players. Antoine Fuqua was previously said to be attached to direct the film. But there's a second Miles Davis film in the works, which George Tillman Jr is attached to direct. The film will be loosely based on Gregory Davis' book, Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis (Gregory Davis being Miles Davis' eldest son). The plan for Tillman's project, which will be called Miles Davis, Prince of Darkness, is to produce a more conventional biopic (the producers previously mentioned Walk The Line and Ray as potential models that they'll follow). I'm guessing that we might see Tillman's before Cheadle's.

Barbara Jordan - Viola Davis is attached to star as the late congresswoman with Paris Barclay directing. No movement there since that announcement last year.

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.

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/screening series circuit since then. No word on whether it'll receive a formal theatrical release in the USA though, which is unfortunate. It would be great if an American distributor picked it up - even if to release on home video, or VOD.

Marcus Garvey - There were rumors that Don Cheadle was developing one with Kevin Navayne starring. Cheadle later denied those rumors. But who knows...

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. It didn't happen, and hasn't happened.

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 the film. 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 once 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 when it's received this fall.

Hattie McDaniel - Mo'nique purchased life rights to the late actress years ago, and once said she wanted Lee Daniels to direct. No movement.

Shirley Chisolm - Shola Lynch's excellent documentary aside, both Viola Davis and Regina King have been said to be attached to star as Chisolm in a scripted biopic. Nothing more to say here.

Thelonius Monk - A passion project for Denzel Washington, which he said, earlier last year, he has a script for. But no director nor financing yet... that we know of.

Milli Vanilli - At least 2 have been announced over the last decade, with Brett Ratner at one time said to be attached to direct back in 2007, and later German filmmaker Florian Gallenberger. No movement on either.

Sam Cooke - Announced last year, an adaptation of Peter Guralnick's 2005 bio Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Earlier this year, we learned exclusively that Carl Franklin was attached to write and direct. No ETA yet.

"Freeway" Rick Ross - a "Traffic"-like biopic on the life of 1980s drug dealer has been in the works for a few years now, with Nick Cassavetes (son of indie film trailblazer John Cassavetes) reportedly directing. Most recently, earlier this year, Nick Cannon revealed that he would be starring in the film. Ross himself will be talking to us about the project, so look out for that post.

Angela Davis - Shola Lynch's recent 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. That was first announced 2-3 years ago. Earlier this year, Forest Whitaker took over the project (as producer). No news on who might be starring, or what plans are for this.

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. However, 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. No ETA yet.

Dr. S. Allen Counter (the African-American neuroscience professor) - One of many projects that was on Will Smith's upcoming slate of films; Debbie Allen is/was also involved in some capacity. Nothing new to report here. 

Oprah Winfrey - To be based on Kitty Kelley's 2010 unauthorized bio about her (which we profiled on this blog). Rights to the book were optioned in a 6-figure deal, by one Larry Thompson, who's produced previous biopics on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Sonny and Cher, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Thompson planned to develop the project as a TV movie or miniseries, with its debut scheduled to coincide with Oprah's final syndicated episode in September 2011. Never happened. So it's likely dead.

George Weah - in 2010, actor Dermot Mulroney was said to be working on a biopic on the life of Liberian soccer star-turned-politician. Nothing doing here.

Laurie Cunningham - a biopic on the black British soccer star was announced in 2010. Anthony Mackie and Ashley Walters have been mentioned as possible candidates. No word on whether it's still alive.

Buddy Bolden - Another Anthony Mackie project that's been in development for a long time. 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. Mackie most recently told us that he was finished with it. So maybe a 2014 debut.

Rick James - In 2009, his daughter Ty James hinted at an actor with the initials T.H. that she said was in talks to star in a biopic on the musician's life. We guessed that T.H. was Terrence Howard. But nothing's happening here.

Mike Tyson - Well, HBO passed on Spike's Da Brick, although it wasn't specifically a Tyson biopic. But for years now, Jamie Foxx has been pushing to star in a film on Tyson's life, and Tyson has given him his blessing.

Lena Horne - Salli Richardson-Whitfield announced 2 years ago that she and her management company were working on one. No movement we know of here.

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?

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm..., FYI


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