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

by Tambay A. Obenson
August 16, 2011 8:51 AM
41 Comments
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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.

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41 Comments

  • Veda | September 27, 2011 3:40 AMReply

    Dorothy West book adaptation of THE WEDDING produced by ABC and Oprah Winfrey presents; Terri MacMillian's DISAPPEARING ACTS/HBO, HBO produced by Danny Glover did three African American short stories in the mid 90's to launch the idea of a series but it fizzled out called AMERICA'S DREAM -The Boy Who Painted Christ Black, Long Black Song, The Reunion

  • Carleen brice | September 10, 2011 5:22 AMReply

    If you want to include TV movies, Sins of the Mother was based on my novel Orange Mint and Honey. Aired on LMN in 2010 and starred Jill Scott & Nicole Beharie. Won 2 NAACP Image Awards. I believe Lifetime has a few novels by black authors in the pipeline now.

  • Miles Ellison | August 16, 2011 12:29 PMReply

    The rest of the Chester Himes and Walter Mosley detective novels should definitely be adapted, but I don’t know if enough black people would support them so that Hollywood would actually continue to green-light them to the very end.

    This is the crux of the issue. There is no shortage of interesting and diverse material out there. The question is whether or not black people will support it the way they've supported the recycling of hoary black stereotypes, female-centered pathology porn, and generally witless comic coonery. Personally, I would go see an adaptation of Percival Everett's Erasure, but it's unlikely that a film like that would generate a fraction of the box office that either The Help or Tyler Perry's semiannual opuses do, if it even got made.

  • Neziah | August 16, 2011 11:28 AMReply

    The rest of the Chester Himes and Walter Mosley detective novels should definitely be adapted, but I don't know if enough black people would support them so that Hollywood would actually continue to green-light them to the very end.

  • Tamara | August 16, 2011 4:58 AMReply

    *to add*

    I'd like to see 'fan-fiction' be converted into 'fiction' for some of these tv show/movie franchises. Those stories from writers truly invested in the characters, sometimes trump the actual canon from which these features are created...

  • Orville | August 15, 2011 12:02 PMReply

    I would like to see more movies that are adapted from books that deal with black gay and lesbian people.

    I also would love to see a movie about Langston Hughes and that the film explores his poetry and his homosexuality. It is such as shame that due to homophobia the executors of Langston Hughes estate made such a big deal about Issac Julien's short film Looking for Langston. I would love to see a movie that really goes beneath the surface and explore the passion and love Langston had for black men.

    I sincerely hope Tracy Edmonds can get Invisible Life turned into a feature film. I also would love to see the work of James Baldwin turned into a movie such as Giovanni's Room or Another Country. We need more movies about black gay and lesbian icons.

  • CareyCarey | August 15, 2011 12:02 PMReply

    THE Sam Greenlee!?

    The man behind these words... "if you wanna be a rich hoe, go to Hollywood" ?

    And, the man who coined the praise "guerrilla cinema"?

    If so, let me shake your hand and tell the folks that royalty is in the house.

  • sam Greenlee | August 15, 2011 10:13 AMReply

    How about the film adaptation of my novel, The spook Who Sat By The Door, independently produced by Ivan Dixon and me; and suppressed by the FBI? Lookin forward to the production of my screenplay, Lisa Trotter; a modern black adaptation of Lysistrata.

  • Farouche | August 14, 2011 5:38 AMReply

    Back in 1997 on a website called Done Deal.com I read that a script for Octavia Butler's Kindred had been bought by Def Jam. Never heard or saw anything about it again.

  • Xi | August 14, 2011 4:31 AMReply

    Give me about 10 years and I will be adapting Alice Walker's Temple of My Familiar.

    Also, I'm not sure if anyone is familiar with the comic, Bayou by Jeremy Love. Its is an AMAZING - amazing isn't even the word. I honestly can't even do it justice right now.

    All I can say is, IT'S A MUST READ! I was lucky enough to discover it while it was being carried by Zuda Comics online and read the series at least 5 times. It's so well written and the illustration itself yields emotion. I would love to see something like this done in rotoscope like the film "Waking Life". Or maybe done by someone like Mikael Colombu...that's if it can be done without compromising the original style.

    Here's a description of the comic and a link to an article. I'm buying the book (both volumes on Amazon as I type):

    “Bayou” is set south of the Mason-Dixon Line but in an alternative universe where the Civil War not only bred hatred and slavery, but gods and monsters as well.

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=20114

  • Yolanda | August 13, 2011 8:53 AMReply

    I just happened to be on Tananarive Due's Blog today, look at the trailer and drop date for her newest book, My Soul to Take. As I kept browsing through the blog I came across her saying that her first book in the African Immortals series, My Soul to Keep, is in development with Fox Searchlight (sadly its been there for 8 years!) I remember when Blair Underwood was trying to get this made by himself...smh. Maybe there is still hope.

  • Ghost | August 13, 2011 7:53 AMReply

    Don’t know if this counts but STEEL, that terrible movie with shaq was based on a superman storyline.
    ------------------------------------------

    You can't really count that since they had to write out everything linked to Superman.

    And then casting Shaq as an educated black man? And wasting Hill Harper menas help flop.

    I'm suprised that Curtis isn't a cartoon show yet or Watch Your Head.

    Blokhedz was suppose to be a series but never made it past a few trailers.

  • L. D. Robwell | August 13, 2011 4:47 AMReply

    Don't know if this counts but STEEL, that terrible movie with shaq was based on a superman storyline.

  • Janice | August 13, 2011 4:09 AMReply

    One day my novella DREAM ZONE will be made into a movie! Its sci-fi.

    http://janice-mariesmith.blogspot.com/

  • Jasmine Fox | August 13, 2011 4:09 AMReply

    I would like to see something done with Edward P. Jones' stories of characters in D.C. He's written two story collections with the same characters repeating. Then there's his historical novel The Known World. And as for science fiction, how about Samuel Delany? He has also written autobiographical works that could be adapted, incl his semi-autobiographical Atlantis: Three Tales.

  • urbanauteur | August 13, 2011 3:21 AMReply

    Here's my fielder's choice: LEON FORREST- THERE IS A TREE MORE ANCIENT THAN EDEN and his insightful -METEOR IN A MADHOUSE.

    MOJO HAND-J.J.PHILLIPS

    SISTER X AND THE VICTUMS OF FOUL PLAY-CARLENE HATCHER POLITE

    GOODBYE,SWEETWATER(Toni Morrison championed this brother) - Henry Dumas

  • Swank | August 13, 2011 2:46 AMReply

    My Soul to Keep - Tananarive Due

    I've heard a lot about Octavia Butler but have never read any of her work-- yet. I knew we were more than cornball comedies, hood dramas and white people's best friend to promote diversity. Very cool and enlightening topic.

  • Batare | August 13, 2011 2:19 AMReply

    You see all these novels turned film and you are led to believe a black person is never joyously happy or into science fiction or romantic comedy (as pathetic as romantic comedies in Hollywood are) still I guess future generations are going to continuously see black people distressed, sad, impoverished, low-class(slave or maid) or if we are fortunate to be in a movie with a slightly cheery disposition, we are the BEST FRIEND that has no life (at least not romantic) and we are the support system and even though its flattering to be labeled invincible in some of these movies, some of the formulated stock characters for black people are getting old. I am not saying we don't get good roles because we do, we are given immense opportunity, I recognize that, but we need more complex characters.

  • James Madison | August 13, 2011 2:12 AMReply

    Good thread/post.

    I remember reading Octavia Butler's "Fledgling" and was so into it, I got through it in no time. It had everything. Great characters, history, class/caste systems, jealousy, prejudice, action and more fantasy than sci fi.

    Excellent book and not a single word forced. Unfortunately, Ms. Butler passed away the very year the release came out.

    I also read L.A. Bank's Minion as well. Very good modern day tale/spin on vampires.

    My only constructive criticism is the use of slang in the dialogue. Mostly in the poetry that the lead character Damali used in her performances.

    When I was reading Minion my "casting" for the role of Damali was Yaya Dacosta.

    I saw Angela Bassett as her mentor (I can't remember the character's name as I type)

    I loved both books but the edge goes to Fledgling. I would love to see both as feature films. Animated or live action.

    A book that I am currently reading is Harriet Tubman The Road to Freedom.

    Although the book is not written by a person of color, unless mixed, unbeknownst to me, I would like to see what I have read so far on the screen.

    Mrs. Tubman is a real person, but dog gone it, if she does not come off mythological. I would love to see a Harriet Tubman feature. A great woman!

  • RB | August 13, 2011 2:01 AMReply

    This book is definitely book being adapted right now as we speak. The Dew Breaker, written By Edwidge Danticat

    It is being produced by Bill Horberg and his production company Wonderland Films. He produced Milk with Sean Penn, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

    They are currently either in Pre-production or in production for the film.

    Here is a link to to his blog scouting locations..

    http://williamhorberg.typepad.com/william_horberg/2011/06/the-location-scout.html


    Cheers!

  • Gigi Young | August 13, 2011 1:47 AMReply

    I read the Vampire Huntress Legends series from day one until the thirteenth installment (also read her Crimson Moon series [werewolves] and am gutted that her angels/demons series will never be completed).

    I can say that the slang can be off-putting for a while until you catch the rhythm and grow accustomed to it, and I agree with Tamara's friends in that the series does jump the shark a bit with the mythology and the CONSTANT relationship drama between every single character. But Banks had a kick-ass imagination, tying religion, mythology, the supernatural, race, sex, romance, evil, good, the Bible, etc into a massive storyline. And she wrote some of best action-scenes I've read in a long time.

    IMO, the series was at its best in books 3-7, after which the characters seemed to run in circles (conflict-wise and plot-wise), and I was glad it ended--though, I believe the series was extended time and time again due to its popularity.

    BUT OMG...Carlos Rivera...pure sex *fans self*

  • Tamara | August 12, 2011 9:09 AMReply

    @ Tambay,

    I have only read the first three. To judge those three at either of the two extremes you mention, I'd say "love" to "love-beginning-to-wane".

    Friends who've read further along have mixed feelings because the narrative began to jump the shark, in a sense. Left-field of the primary story. It is (or was) a love story in a sense, but an awesome, bad-arse love story. Huntress (Damali) vs. Hunted (Carlos). And there was an overall arc surrounding the story that felt tribal, was tribal...earthy and warrior-esque, even. And an even greater arc of good vs. evil and the woman, the Neteru (black female) as savior and "our only hope". LOL. I think that's pretty awesome. And Damali is awesome.

    It's urban-laced (slang/gangs/etc.) but she infused that setup with the mythology of vamps and demons and created a 'world' that I felt was unique. I literally devoured those first three books. Aside from Bram Stoker and Anne Rice there's only two other authors' vampire works (worlds) that I like: and LABanks is one of them. (Poppy Z. Brite is another, but let me not veer off topic...again. lol).

    I think ultimately the narrative shifted when she introduced Greek gods and Lilith and other notables into the mix. But I'm not 100% sure on that.

    Overall it was just cool to read about a world filled with black-vamps and vamp-hunters of all nations (lol) leading the narrative. I was so happy for her success and so happy she blessed us (me) with a different take on these supernatural beings.

    And the cover art on all of her novels = sexy, sexy, sexy! Carlos = SEXY!!! And I think there was or is a comic book/graphic novel that accompanies the books? I don't know. Again, I may go back and actually finish the saga at some point. Maybe. ;-)

  • Allana Lake | August 12, 2011 8:51 AMReply

    Apparently Jamie Foxx is in talks to produce a film based on "The Imperfect Enjoyment" by Dewan Gibson, a humorous novel about a secret relationship between an Arab student and Black professor. I haven't heard much about it in the trade publications, but I did attend a party to celebrate the book-to-film deal. I read (downloaded on Kindle actually) the book and it's pretty damn funny. And of course raunchy enough for Foxx:)

  • Tamara | August 12, 2011 8:16 AMReply

    She passed. So sad. I only read the first three of her series. Good stuff. Maybe one day will catch up with the rest. @ JMac.

    My apologies for excitedly skimming the post and not following the request @Tambay. lol

    Today has been Monday allllll day.

    Oh and Paul Beatty's White Boy Shuffle, I would love to see happen.

    Also, Minister Faust's The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad would be a sublime treat if handled properly.

    *checks thread before submitting...don't think these have been mentioned* ;-)

  • tambay | August 12, 2011 8:16 AMReply

    And since you folks brought up LA Banks, I've never read any of her material. The day she passed, I asked around for thoughts on her writing, and what novel of hers I should start with. Reactions of been extreme - either love or hate.

    So, I'd like to read your thoughts, both JMac and Tamara, since you mentioned her. Also, what book of hers should I read first?

    Grazie.

  • JMac | August 12, 2011 8:06 AMReply

    Woops and it was in bold too. Sorry Tambay, it's Friday. LOL.

    @Tamara. I didn't know LA Banks died. Went to her site and I'll be damned if she didn't go on my birthday:( I thought two of her books were optioned a few years ago. Can't find anything recent about them.

  • tambay | August 12, 2011 7:40 AMReply

    Ok folks, I know it's a long post, and so maybe you're just skimming it instead of reading it in full, but some of you are listing titles I already mentioned.

    I'm looking at you JMac and Tamara.

  • JMac | August 12, 2011 7:34 AMReply

    Didn't Spike Lee acquire rights for black dude's Time Traveler book?

    Googled it: Ronald Mallet's book

  • Monique | August 12, 2011 7:28 AMReply

    I'm not even a huge sci-fi fan but Octavia Butler's Fledgling all day long!

  • Tamara | August 12, 2011 7:26 AMReply

    @ Niki Haley,

    I'm a sci-fi/speculative/near-future/psychodrama junkie and would love to see more of us represented in those type stories, too. It's what I like, what I write, what I hope to someday share with the world, too. Am actually working on a tale right now; it's written but not complete in "script format". Have a friend who's a photographer that likes my idea(s), concept(s). He and I will be doing some preliminary imaging (don't want to call it principal photography...though it is. lol) soon, to help build the project to the point where I can sell it...or film it; whichever comes first. It's speculative and sci-fi and dramatic and I'm excited. Wish I could do film school, but can't so it's guerilla all the way until I can make the transition.

    Okay. No more thread high-jacking from me. I promise! Love this topic!

  • tambay | August 12, 2011 7:25 AMReply

    @ Tamara - actually yes, I am looking for titles that have already been adapted, going back 20 years. So you were right the first time :)

  • Nia Malika Dixon | August 12, 2011 7:20 AMReply

    Limited is right. I wish an Octavia Butler novel would be adapted into a film. Her stories are so layered, thought-provoking, and stimulating (not to mention downright entertaining!) I'm currently writing a novel based upon my life as an ambitious African-American, 2nd generation Muslim. The twist is that it's a supernatural thriller. I wonder how well received such a book would be...

    More fresh stories with a different spin on the "Black Experience" (And, not just the stereotypes!) should be delved into by the filmmaking community, however, mainstream Hollywood suffers from its own pathology and adheres to the edict that "Black" rarely means commercial or globally viable.

  • deep.honey | August 12, 2011 7:19 AMReply

    I'd love to see A Taste of Power, Elaine Brown's amazing memoir about her rise through the ranks of the Black Panthers, adapted for the big screen.

    I loved Wrapped in Rainbows, Valerie Boyd's account of the life of Zora Neale Hurston, but I could see that as being more of a docudrama for cable TV.

    Junot Diaz' The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao could be difficult to adapt, but would be a great choice.

  • other song | August 12, 2011 7:15 AMReply

    Ah! this is more like it!

    Very interesting analysis, Tambay.

    What about specs? I understand that's much harder to keep track of. But no one's writing anything on spec?

    With that said, maybe it shows that most Black writers tend to take the 'novel' approach whenever they want to tell a story because it's tried and tested.

    As for the 'historical' -- how can we look to the future if we haven't reconciled with the past? imo, the emotional desire to tell our history and our pain is psychological. and all writing is psychological.

    The Black community as a whole has history problems - so we'll cling to that until the day(s) things get a lot better. then maybe we can embrace other genres more readily.

  • Tamara | August 12, 2011 7:10 AMReply

    Bebe Moore Campbell's Brothers and Sisters if done right could be a good film. It was a good read, most definitely.

    Oh yes, Maryse Conde! I, Tituba, Segue, Crossing the Mangrove. Magic realism. Speculative. Rich tales, they are. Vivid. Especially "Mangrove". Good stuff.

    L.A. Banks. (RIP) She put a new spin on vampires and demons with her Huntress series.

  • Niki Haley | August 12, 2011 7:06 AMReply

    I am still a film student but also a black female independant filmmaker and I have seen all of the films listed here and many others and I couldn't agree more with the comments made in this article.
    I have a lot of respect for all the black filmmakers out there making films they love but I am really tired of only seeing black films about women, like myself, struggling and/or being oppressed by black men and whatever other seemingly "black" issues they may be going through, as well as "hood" films. I think it gives the impression that is all we are and that does not sit well with me.
    Where are the black sci-fi films, or horror, or suspense thrillers or anything else that we are so capable of making.
    I'm tired of seeing the same thing from us and I can tell you that I have no interest or plans to make any of these types of films-we have plenty of them already.
    There are black people who love sci-fi films, I happen to be one of them. There are black people how love crime dramas, and suspense, so where are the films for those people? I don't know who came up wit this rule that black filmmakers have to only make films for black audiences, white filmmakers don't do that. They make films for anyone who likes that particular genre, so what's wrong here? I can't stand it anymore, the time of "oh, we slaves, we maids, we been raped beated and treated or w can only tell jokes or get shot upin the hood" are over, or at least need to be over, like yesterday. As we as black people need to get out of that little box that is keeping your mind closed to anything that just happens to be unfamilar to you. Does the black film industry need some help with this? Don't worry, I got you.

  • Tamara | August 12, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    Sergio beat me to it with Mosley. LOL. And forgive me, but I thought you asked for more past titles within recent years that have gone through conversion. *sigh* Reading is sooo fundamental. *slinks away*

    And as an aside, I'm currently reading Mosely's The Wave which is speculative/sci-fi.

  • Sergio | August 12, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    I should make clear these are the black novels that I WISHED would be made into movies.

    Of those that have The Devil in a Blue Dress is my No. 1 choice

  • Mecca | August 12, 2011 6:53 AMReply

    "The Ecstatic" by: Victor LaValle is another one. I would like to see an adaptation of this novel on screen.

  • Tamara | August 12, 2011 6:50 AMReply

    Walter Mosley:

    Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

    Always Outnumbered (1998)

    ***will return to add more***

  • Sergio | August 12, 2011 6:48 AMReply

    O.K. to start this off my first choice would be Chester Hines' The Real Cool Killers with N.Y. police detective Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. The opening sequence is the book is brilliantly cinematic and very comic as well

    My second choices would be another adaptation any one of Walter Mosely's other Easy Rawlins detective novels such as White Butterfly, Black Betty or Little Scarlet

    No "black pathology tales' for me. Movies based on action/mystery novels about black men in a dangerous situations taking care of business and coming out on top at the end

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