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UPDATES (New Titles Added)... Identifying Trends In Novels About Black People Made Into Films

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act August 16, 2011 at 8:51AM

I've decided that I'll continue to update this post every time a new novel adaptation is announced; instead of waiting another year as I did the last time, and end up missing a few.
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I've decided that I'll continue to update this post every time a new novel adaptation is announced; instead of waiting another year as I did the last time, and end up missing a few.

So, with today's news that Steve McQueen is set to direct Chiwetel Ejiofor in an adaptation of Solomon Northup's slave narrative 12 Years A Slave,” which Brad Pitt’s Plan B company is producing, the dominant trend I identified in my last post on this still mostly holds - except there's a gender switch.

The previously noted trend was that the novels tend to be black woman-centered affliction tales that are set in the past.

Well, 2 out of 3 this time around; also, in my 12 Years A Slave post earlier today, I mentioned that Chiwetel is already attached to play a freed slave in a film loosely based on a book by John Eugene Cay, Jr., titled Ducks, Dogs and Friends, set during post-Civil War, Jim Crow-era days, which tells the story of Christmas Moultrie (the last slave born on the historical Mulberry Grove Plantation, where the Cotton Gin was invented), who hunted on the Savannah River with Ward Allen a white man.

I forgot to mention that book in my original list, so I'm throwing it in now. And with these 2 new additions, the trend shifts a little bit from black woman-centered, to black man-focused, though still very much dominated by stories about black people set during some of the most harrowing periods for black people in this country; very rarely set in the present-day.

You have to wonder why that is; even if you aren't sure of an answer, you just have to.

But I'll be adding a few more titles; I just need to verify some items first.

Here's where the original post begins....

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In light of recent events, I thought it'd be a good idea to revisit this post, and continue updating it as more novels are optioned and made into films.

The gist of it all is, as the title of the post states, we're tracking film adaptations of books that tell stories primarily about black people, and looking for any patterns worth noting in the kinds of "black novels" that have been given big screen treatment.

And as we found out when I last brought this matter up, almost a year ago, there was/is a noticeable pattern. Specifically, first, the stories tend to be black pathology tales; second, black women are often at the center of the narrative; and third, they lean towards the historical.

To wit... going back just the last 20 or so years, from about 1990 to the present, in no specific order: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf, Push, Waiting To Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove BackWomen of Brewster Place, Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Devil In A Blue Dress, A Rage in Harlem, A Lesson Before Dying, The Pursuit of Happyness, Finding Fish, The Secret Life of Bees, Alex Haley's Queen, What's Love Got to Do with It, The Last King of Scotland, The Help...

Those on the horizon: Erasure (Angela Bassett is adapting), Helena Andrews' Bitch Is The New Black (optioned by Shonda Rhimes), Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (optioned by the Rainforest Films crew), Nnedi Okorafor's sci-fi/fantasy novel, Who Fears Death (optioned by producer Kisha Cameron-Dingle), Tracey Edmonds planning to make films based on E. Lynn Harris' library of books, Code Black Entertainment doing the same with Mary “HoneyB” Morrison's oeuvre, Dolen Perkins-Valdez's Wench, Viola Davis optioning The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Spike Lee's adaptation of Dr Ronald Mallet’s The Time Traveller, Fantasia's Mahalia Jackson project, Tyler Perry's Alex Cross project, the upcoming sequel to Waiting To Exhale, titled Getting To Happy, which Terry McMillan is working on right now, Oprah's optioning of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks...

Now, I'm sure I'm missing some titles, so if you can think of any not listed above, please mention them in the comments section below - again going back about 20 years. I'd really like to get a good feel for what we have here. But, in general, I think we can all agree that there is an overall trend in the types of "black films" Hollywood prefers, regardless of the source material - whether a book or original scripts.

And despite adding the names of books that have been optioned since the last time I brought up this subject a year ago, the pattern identified at the top of this post still mostly holds; and that is that the novels tend to be black woman-centered affliction tales that are set in the past. Certainly not all.

Anyone notice anything else? So few sci-fi, detective, or even humor novels. So limited.

There are a wealth of original novels by black authors, about black people, set in contemporary (or even future, or alternate) times, with fresh, varied stories across all genres, just begging to be adapted. But the vast majority go unnoticed. It's baffling that we've yet to see an Octavia Butler novel be adapted, for example. I think Matt Johnson's Hunting In Harlem is both topical and has commercial appeal and would make a good movie; Colson Whitehead is another that immediately comes to me. Tananarive Due, and so many others.

But, as we've preached already, I wouldn't count on Hollywood for that variety. Look to the indie filmmakers for original ideas, even though some of the content there is just as homogenized, and tries to mirror studio output.

Comments? Thoughts? Etc... if you have any.

This article is related to: Book To Film


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