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50+ Biopic Projects On Black Public Figures "In Limbo;" Which Will Make It To The Finish Line?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
April 9, 2012 11:25 AM
15 Comments
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marvin gaye

There are probably more than 50 (hence the "+" sign in the title), 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 years.

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

We've covered all of them, and continue to update you with each new development worth reporting; some of these names even have more than 1 project centered on them; a few have as many as 4 or 5, pushing the above 50+ number even higher.

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 - getting the funds needed to begin production.

Some have already been scripted (like Don Cheadle's unconventional Miles Davis project), and have actors attached (in a few cases, what we'd call "name" actors like Lee Daniels' MLK film), but financiers apparently aren't convinced enough to invest in them; others have rights hurdles to get past (like the numerous Marvin Gaye projects); and still some face challenges/objections from family members, estates, or other powerful, influencial voices (several of the MLK & Marvin Gaye projects notably).

2 or 3 have already been produced, but are without distribution (at least, stateside distribution, like Philip Niang's Toussaint L'Ouverture, and Jeniffer Hudson's Winnie); another 1 or 2 reportedly have the financial backing necessary to go into production, and are scheduled to do so soon (Idris Elba's Nelson Mandela project for example), but as we've seen happen with at least one of those *sure-things* (Paul Greengrass' MLK project and Julien Temple's Marvin Gaye film at one point), 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 narratives that were once announced isn't certain in each case (Shirley Chisolm, Bob Marley, Angela Davis notably).

On screen depictions of a few of these names (and others whom I don't believe have biopics in development) 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 (Old Dirty Bastard, Barry White, Donna Summer to name a few).

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 dimissed as more of a dream than something that will eventually be realized. It's kind of like the boy who cried wolf. It's tough to get excited when 

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 recall, for example, reader ire in response to our announcement that a Bobby Brown biopic was being shopped around).

I'd be surprised if even a quarter of these announced projects are actually produced; and 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. I'd say it's a fool's errand trying to capture an entire life in 2 hours. 

Here's a list of the 50+ black men and women (some living, most not) and a sentence on what I know about each (which of these would you like to see happen first?):

Marvin Gaye - there are at least 4 Marvin Gaye projects I know of - from F. Gary GrayJesse L Martin, Cameron Crowe, and Julien Temple.

James Brown - Spike Lee was working on one, with Eddie Murphy as potential star.

Jackie Robinson - Chadwick BosemanNicole Beharie are starring in a project to be directed by Brian Helgeland.

Nina Simone - There was Mary J. Blige's project which was put on hold, reportedly so she could shoot Rock Of Ages.

Aretha Franklin - Really, only Aretha Franklin herself has been trying to get one made, with Halle Berry as her #1 choice to star.

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.

Bob Marley - Yes, there's the documentary that's coming to theaters shortly, 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 in the works I know of: from Paul Greengrass to Lee Daniels, to Oprah’s HBO miniseries, the Steven Spielberg/DreamWorks project , and Wesley Snipes’ planned exploration of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to discredit MLK.

Tupac - Antoine Fuqua seemed to be close to getting his project off the ground last year; but then he left it, and there was talk of John Singleton taking over.

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).

Mahalia Jackson Euzhan Palcy was directing one with Fantasia starring.

ODB - RZA was supposedly shepherding an Old Dirty Bastard project, and said a year 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 about ODB).

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 shoot starting this summer.

Winnie Mandela - There was Jennifer Hudson's poorly received project which premiered at Toronto last fall; but nothing on it 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.

Florence Ballard - Jurnee Smollet was reportedly attached to play the ex-Supreme, with Beyonce's sister, Solange Knowles in the role of Diana Ross.

Jimmy Hendrix - Andre 3000 has long been attached to star in a Jimi Hendrix project, going all the way back to 2004, which the Hughes brothers were once supposed to direct; Lenny Kravitz and Anthony Mackie were also said to be attached to hendrix projects.

Sammy Davis Jr - last fall, 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.

Jesse Owens - Anthony Mackie has long been trying to make a film on Owens, calling it his dream project.

Bobby Brown - Brown himself and director Michael Pinckney have been shopping around a Bobby Brown biopic, and there's reportedly been 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.

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

Marion Barry - Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy are developing a project for HBO

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 is done, with Jimmy Jean-Luis starring as the titular character; it's screened at festivals around the world, and is scheduled to air on Frence TV. No word on whether it'll travel.

Marcus Garvey - Rumors that Don Cheadle was developing one with Kevin Navayne starring.

NWA - Ice Cube recently said that it's definitely coming, maybe sooner than we think.

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 - last year Wendell Pierce announced that he was attached to star as King in a project.

Fela - There's Steve McQueen's project which Chiwetel Ejiofor was attachedto star in.

Hattie McDaniel - Mo'nique purchased life rights to the late actress years ago, and once said she wanted Lee Daniels to direct.

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 2 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 this year that he has a script for.

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.

Sam Cooke - announced last year, an adaptation of Peter Guralnick's 2005 bio Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke

"Freeway" Rick Ross - a "Traffic"-like biopic on the life of the notorious 1980s drug dealer was said to be in the works last year, with Nick Cassavetes (son of indie film trailblazer John Cassavetes) directing.

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. 

Richard Pryor - Chris Rock was producing a project with Marlon Wayans attached to star.

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.

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 this 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.

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.

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.

Buddy Bolden - Another Anthony Mackie project that's been in some stage of development over the last many years.

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.

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 last year that she and her management company are working on one.

And there are more, but I'll end it here. This list adds up to 51 by the way! If I dug deeper, I won't be shocked if the total number pushes close to 100 projects, most of them in Limbo.

Worth noting is that Anthony Mackie is/has been attached to 3 different biopics; I counted 2 for Eddie Murphy.

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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15 Comments

  • Josh | December 31, 2013 7:27 PMReply

    I would love to see a Aretha Franklin biopic with Fantasia as Aretha. I think she would be great. She has the charisma, voice and soul to nail that role. She would possibly need to work with an acting coach. She already have some acting experience, but a coach would help to improve her acting. But overall Fantasia could really do Miss Franklin justice on screen. Plus this movie could catapult Fantasia's into superstar status just like The Bodyguard did for the late Whitney Houston, Ray did for Jamie Foxx and Dreamgirls did for Jennifer Hudson.

    Fantasia would also be perfect for a Bob Marley biopic. I would love to see her play Bob Marley's widow Rita and maybe Lenny Kravitz or Bob's son Ziggy Marley as Bob Marley. In fact I heard Rita Marley was working on a movie about her late husband based on her book No Woman, No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley.

  • Noah | May 1, 2012 5:34 PMReply

    Biopic about MILLI VANILLI promises to be quite interesting. There are two scenarios and both deserve attention.

  • brazzaville | April 17, 2012 1:31 AMReply

    The ones I would love to see are biopics on Fela, Nina Simone and James Brown.

    Eddie Murphy as James Brown though???

  • Tracee | April 15, 2012 8:46 PMReply

    I'd love to see bios on Fela, Nina, Touissaint, and Bob...i think the nuance of those stories could make for great filmmaking as well as opportunity to investigate some very important period/themes in OurStory.

  • Dankwa Brooks | April 13, 2012 12:13 PMReply

    I too give you props on the compilation Tambay *bravo*. I for one would like to see a Rick James biopic. His story is remarkable and tragic "cocaine is a helluva drug".

    I think a lot of these biopics deserve 'The Temptations' treatment. I DID NOT like 'Ray' partly because to encompass along life & career as long and storied as Mr. Charles, it was too long and too short.

  • James W. Lewis | April 10, 2012 9:02 PMReply

    I would love to see a Nat Turner production, and I hear Quentin Tarantino is working on it with Jamie Foxx and Samuel Jackson: http://community.allhiphop.com/discussion/225692/jamie-foxx-and-samuel-l-jackson-to-play-slaves-in-upcoming-quentin-tarantino-film/p2

    Then again, I don't know if the movie industry is ready.

  • Dankwa Brooks | April 13, 2012 12:07 PM

    Thats not the Nat Turner story it's an original slavery story written by QT called DJANGO UNCHAINED

  • urbanauteur | April 10, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    I would love to see bio-pics on ELAINE BROWN,BESSIE COLEMAN,FREDERICK DOUGLASS,ELLA MAE BAKER & KWADE NKRUMAH;

  • Donella | April 10, 2012 3:35 PMReply

    Nice roundup!

  • Azifukare | April 10, 2012 2:33 PMReply

    You missed Danny Glover's project on Toussaint L'Overture. He actually got money from Venezuela's Prez. Chavez a few years back. There's a website ---at least there was one and really since then, no other news.

  • Jayson Jay | April 10, 2012 9:46 AMReply

    I would love to see these done well: Sam Cooke, Ethel Waters, Fredi Washington, Reverend Ike, Nat Turner

  • JeremieK | April 9, 2012 7:36 PMReply

    Michael Jackson Biopic Sounds The BEST To Me. There's SO MANY INTERESTING Things From Every Aspect Of His Life That Hasn't Been Covered On Film, Plus Many People Will Flock To The Cinemas

  • CareyCarey | April 9, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    Tambay, I am impressed by how you manage to compile all the/these posts (day after day) that would take the average person weeks to put together, let alone add well thought-out commentary. You either have a very good secretary or YOU THE MAN! And just think, about 3 months ago you said your time wouldn't permit you to be around S & A that often. Well, it appears I am going to have to give you a nickname... Octopus Man! Yep, you're stretched out like you have 8 arms and legs that a centipede would die for. Then again, maybe you never sleep? Anyway, thanks for doing the damn thang. EXPRESS YOURSELF --> http://youtu.be/YXcQicGIRas

  • FRANKB | April 9, 2012 5:43 PMReply

    I would love to see the story of Donna Summer!! What a wonderful biography she wrote about 8 years ago, The Journey. And is the other biopic about Neil Bogart that you mention Donna is to be a supporting character for? Do you know anything else about this?

  • Critical acclaim | April 9, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    That's a lot of dreaming. For every 50 of these dreams, you only get one "Ray" if you Re lucky, the rest will probably never get made or be doomed to "Winnie" status - ie poorly done by white people trying to cash in.

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