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South African Director Darrell Roodt Will Helm 'Paul Robeson' Biopic (Louis Gossett Jr. Is W.E.B Du Bois)

by Tambay A. Obenson
February 12, 2013 12:04 PM
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Interesting choice, and not one I was expecting at all.

South African director Darrell Roodt has been hired to helm the Paul Robeson biopic that co-star of Showtime's hit drama series Homeland, David Harewood, has signed up to star in.

In what is shaping up to be a multi-continental production, both in front of and behind the camera, the project comes from Four Stars International, and will be produced by Greg Carter and executive produced by Richard Akel, with a script penned by Akel and Terry Bisson, with promises of a film that's worthy of its subject.

Also of note, we now know what role Louis Gossett Jr., who has also long been attached, will play in the film. Variety reports that Gossett will portray W.E.B. Du Bois in the independently-produced film.

You should recognize Roodt's name because it's come up a few times on this blog; a veteran director whose resume goes back to the early 1980s. He directed films like Sarafina!, Cry the Beloved Country, and most recently, the Winnie Mandela biopic that starred Jennifer Hudson, Winnie.

No word on whether revered jazzman Wynton Marsalis is still in talks to score the film. And also no word on what actress will play Robeson's wife Eslanda ("Essie") Goode Robeson.

But in an interview with Screen Daily yesterday, Harewood and Richard Akel discussed the Robeson project, revealing bits and pieces of it that I thought were worth sharing.

First, on how he, Harewood, heard about the role:

About 15 years ago I came across Paul Robeson and buried myself in biographies and found out what I could about him. We’re all familiar with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Civil Rights movement, but I had no idea that what predated this was this extraordinary figure. When Richard originally sent me the script I had been shooting Homeland and I very unconventionally circumvented my agent and went straight to Richard. I told him I would walk across broken glass to play this man. I have played Martin Luther King on stage and Mandela on screen but this would be the pinnacle.

Secondly, on how the story will be told, Harewood replies

We’re going to use a linear story model, so both myself and the actress playing my wife will have to age into our 50s and 60s, so it’s going to be a real challenge.

He's right. I'm always nervous when makeup has to be used to age actors for the screen. It's rare that it really, really works well, and is believable.

Third, on other cast & crew members currently attached; Akel replied:

We are in confidential discussions with a director and a star to play Robeson’s wife Essie.

So, no director is attached yet, but they're talking with one; and they're also talking with "a star" he says, to play Robeson's wife. I can only wonder who that "star" is that they're talking to. When it comes to black actresses of any notoriety, especially internationally, the list is a terribly short one. But we'll see eventually.

Eslanda ("Essie") Goode Robeson was an anthropologist, author, actor and activist. She actually died 11 years before Paul Robeson did. She was also an actress, but not near as prolific as Paul was.

There aren't a lot of pictures of her on the web actually - especially as a younger woman. But my guess is that a Brit actress will likely be cast for the role, someone who is somewhat known, both here in the USA and in Europe, which narrows the list down to names like Naomie Harris, Sophie Okonedo, Thandie Newton, maybe even Ruth Negga, or Zawe Ashton, although they aren't as well known right now as the first three names I mentioned.

And finally, with regards to planned shoot dates, Akel replies:

The goal is to shoot this in August in Toronto and Montreal.

Depending on when the film is released, assuming it's high-profile enough, it could very well be a film that will find itself in Awards season conversations for whatever that year is.

I wonder who'll play Oscar Micheaux, since Robeson made his film acting debut in Micheaux's Body and Soul (1925).

Given the long life that he lived, the events he lived through, the other historically-significant public figures he knew, interacted and worked with, his on-screen and off-screen accomplishments, his activism that would lead to his black-listing, and so much more, there's a lot of great history here in this one, single life. And a big screen account of that life is one that's definitely warranted. 

We're definitely excited to see what develops here.

Stay tuned...

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  • ao | February 12, 2013 6:51 PMReply

    Is Darrell Roodt directing for free? Otherwise, why is another Black-themed movie being directed by another non-Black director? No one can tell me there aren't several Black director's out there who can handle this project as good if not better than Mr. Roodt. A white director directing a film about the great Paul Robeson says it loud... we haven't made much progress since Mr. Robeson's times and the struggle continues!

    As far a Louis Gossett, Jr. playing the great intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, I don't think it is the same as Saldana playing Nina Simone at all. Nina Simone was a great singer and entertainer, known for her cultural authenticity and particularly for forcing people (of all races) to acknowledge and accept the beauty of a Black woman with classic and undeniable African features. The casting of Saldana as Nina Simone, flys in the face of one of Nina's most important achievements and what has helped to make her a cultural icon.

    On the other hand, the shade of Dr. DuBois' skin is irrelevant to his persona. Whatever privileges Dr. DuBois' skin color may have afforded him or detracted from him, are irrelevant. His work and accomplishments as an great intellectual, historian, sociologist, author, academic and Pan-Africanist is unquestionable and what makes Dr. DuBois a towering figure.

  • getthesenets | February 13, 2013 1:34 PM


    Though I've never read him actually saying it, I always read colorism into his "talented tenth" theory.

  • getthesenets | February 13, 2013 1:48 AM


    Disagree on 2 of your points.
    People are revising history a bit when it comes to Nina. I think Cicely Tyson had a greater impact on Black women in this country embracing their natural features than Nina did.beverley peele had more impact.

    generations later, many black women are discovering nina and giving her iconic status but while she was alive and living in these united states, she was never a star or really embraced by black audiences as much as revisionists think.

    will address dubois later

  • Mark | February 12, 2013 10:20 PM

    AO, you're wrong. W.E.B. DuBois' skin color was an important part of his life at the time when lighter skin offered more privilege. Gossett's portrayal of DuBois makes as much sense as Danny Glover's or Sidney Poitier's portrayal of Thurgood Marshall. Rosa Parks was chosen for her bus protest partly because of her light skin.

  • getthesenets | February 12, 2013 1:30 PMReply

    Lou Gossett Jr. is a remarkable actor..and like Robeson he was also an elite athlete in his youth.

    Looks absolutely nothing like Dubois though...unless they use lots of makeup/prosthetics...and use creative camera tricks to hide his tall regal stature.

    He looks as much like Dubois as Saldana looks like Nina Simone.

    Garvey famously called Dubois a rabid mulatto, remember?

  • Bee | February 12, 2013 6:06 PM

    I agree with both of you! Personally, I'm just as disappointed with the fact that yet again another white man gets to tell our stories. It's just annoying at this point, and I'm getting to the point where I'm not interested in any biopics of our legends because these biopics never do the people of those stories justice anyway.

  • AccidentalVisitor | February 12, 2013 1:48 PM

    Thank you. This is just like whenAndre Braugher played Benjamin O. Davis and Sidney Poitier played Thurgood Marshall. There are people who will argue that the light skin of those distinguished gentlemen allowed them to be more accepted from whites, not to mention that light skinned blacks were disproportionately represented in better jobs and higher levels of schooling than their darker counterparts during the late 19th century and early 20th.

  • urbanauteur | February 12, 2013 12:50 PMReply

    Why not RAOUL PECK? or HAILE GERIMA-IDRISSA QUEDRAOGO-DJIBRIL DIOP MAMBETY .. all great Pan African directors , especially for the subject matter, which would lend these stalwarts both some objective even handedness...but as usual DAME! here we GO AGAIN...:-[

  • AccidentalVisitor | February 12, 2013 1:40 PM

    I concur regarding Peck. Not so much in regards to Gerima.

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