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

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act February 12, 2013 at 12:04PM

Interesting choice, and not one I was expecting at all.
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Paul Robeson

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.

Roodt

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.

Eslanda ("Essie") Goode Robeson
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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