By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist November 27, 2013 at 4:32PM
“Brooklyn Loves MJ”
For whatever reason, and possibly because simply not enough time has passed for anyone to feel like they can take an adequately objective look at the man’s life and enormous legacy, but more likely because of, we can only imagine, crazy rights issues around the music, fiction features about Michael Jackson, or even featuring him as a background pop cultural touchpoint, are surprisingly thin on the ground. Word’s even gone quiet on the gestating biopic that was being shopped a couple of years ago. Which is one level on which the evaporation of Lee’s “Brooklyn Loves MJ” is disappointing, but mainly we’re kind of gutted because this one sounded like such classic Lee material. As much as we enjoy his more accessible, less idiosyncratic projects (Lee’s matured into a consummately accomplished filmmaker whatever the material), our hearts always kinda leap when we hear him linked to material that sees him return to his Brooklyn roots, and this script would definitely have been just such a return.
Set largely in the Fort Greene neighborhood of the titular New York borough, Lee’s original screenplay, apparently inspired somewhat by a yearly community party to celebrate the singer’s birthday that Lee is involved in, was going to deal with the effects and injustices of the gentrification process, as the lead, a Brooklyn-based DJ tries to organise a block party in Jackson’s memory. He’s opposed by the white leader of a local residents association, but also comes into conflict with his brother, a local gang member, in a storyline that really sounds like it would have espoused the Lee staple of racial instability while adding in the contemporary edge of gentrification in an Obama-era climate, as well as seeing him embrace new elements, like a reported full-on musical number. The actors who were rumored to be interested included returning Lee collaborators Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, Anthony Mackie, Rosie Perez and Kerry Washington, along with, apparently Julianne Moore likely as, we can only guess, one of the WASP-y new inhabitants.
In fact had things gone to plan, Lee would have made “Brooklyn Loves MJ” in 2010, before, or possibly instead of “Red Hook Summer,” which premiered in Sundance in 2012. In interview there, however, Lee said that like so often in his career, budget had proven an insurmountable obstacle to getting a film of its scope and ambition made at that point. “[‘MJ’] was something I was not able to finance myself,” he said. “[‘Red Hook Summer’] was done with a SAG low-budget agreement. That film, I could not have done like that.” However at the same 2012 festival, he told us that he did hope that “Brooklyn Loves MJ” might be up next, though he literally knocked on wood as he said it.
But so much for that superstition. Obviously, what actually rolled next for Lee was “Oldboy,” but as late as August of last year he was still talking about the possibility of ‘MJ’ getting made at some point. So from his point of view, it’s not off the table and this is one we really hope sees the light of day and doesn’t get filed away forever.
In June 2008, the switchboards lit up briefly with the announcement, via press release, that Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, had optioned the book “Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission To Make Time Travel A Reality,” which Lee was slated to adapt into a screenplay and to direct. Lee’s involvement might on the surface seem a strange fit for a director not known for his sci-fi leanings, but in fact the book is part memoir, and was written by and about Dr. Ronald Mallet, one of the first ever African-Americans to gain a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. It documents his own life story, from a deprived and poverty-stricken childhood, through the death of his father (an event to which Mallett traces his desire to be able to go back in time) and on to his career as a scientist culminating in what according to the press release, New Scientist’s editor called “an actual blueprint for a time machine.” Which well, okay, wow. But still, Lee’s comment that the project was a “fantastic story on many levels (and) also a father and son saga of loss and love” suggests that his focus would be more human interest than theremin-soundtracked science fiction. Which is kind of a shame if true, because we’d love to see what Lee would do in such an atypical genre.
Anyway, since that announcement word’s gone deathly quiet on this one. Mallett himself referred to the film as “in development” in a 2011 interview, and our sister blog Shadow and Act, in its pre-Indiewire days, ran a comprehensive piece on the book’s potential for adaption along with some speculative casting. But from Lee himself, there’s been nada, and the garrulous Lee can usually be relied upon for a nugget or two if things are even remotely a going concern. And while the time travel angle does pique our interest, the danger that this might become a standard triumph-over-adversity biopic with but a light dusting of physics, does loom rather large judging by what we’ve heard so far. Still perhaps all this will become moot when Mallett’s time machine gets up and running and he can go back and make sure the film is already made by now. Or maybe it does work and he already went back in time to suppress the film version, thus creating our current reality and, more importantly, this blog post? MIND BLOWN.
“Save Us, Joe Louis”
The second of a trifecta of biopics about seminal figures from black history, none of which Lee, to his frustration, has ever been able to get off the ground (James Brown and Jackie Robinson being the other two—see above for the story of the James Brown picture, while this year’s “42” suggests his Jackie Robinson project is now totally defunct), Spike Lee’s mooted Joe Louis movie was maybe the one we were most interested in, on paper anyway. Slated to focus specifically on the rivalry between Louis and Max Schmeling (and we always appreciate biopics that take the approach of highlighting one aspect or period of the subject’s life rather than trying to cram in every Potentially Meaningful moment from the cradle to the grave), it was all the way back in 2000 that Lee was first linked to the project. Indeed, it was suggested that his disappointment at losing the Muhammad Ali biopic to Michael Mann prompted him to go in search of another tale of a black boxing hero, though we’re sure it wasn’t quite as simplistic as that.
He was joined in the endeavor by boxing historian Bert Sugar and Budd Schulberg, the legendary screenwriter of both “On the Waterfront” and boxing pic “The Harder They Fall,” himself no slouch when it comes to knitting social and cultural context deep into the fabric of a screenplay. The slant Lee and Schulberg were taking was reportedly overtly political, as the two boxers became symbols of opposing ideologies (Louis was a hero for African-Americans during the immediate prewar period when Hitler himself had championed the German-born Schmeling) prior to becoming friends despite it all in their later retirement. As Lee told ESPN: “The hook is the relationship—as adversaries, as political tools, as opponents in the ring, and as friends—between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, and the arc of their lives. They engaged in perhaps the greatest two minutes of sports and warfare of the entire 20th century, symbolically speaking.”
It was the film Lee was actively trying to mount when 9/11 happened, in fact he had had a meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role of Schmeling the day before, he remembered in 2011. Obviously it didn’t come together at that point (but you can read a script review of this draft here), but neither did it go away with Variety reporting in 2005 that script work had been ongoing by both Lee and a then 93-year-old Schulberg, and Lee saying that historical figures like FDR, Hitler Mussolini and Sugar Ray Robinson would feature and calling it a “David Lean caliber film.” In 2006, Schulberg mentioned that Lee had spoken to Terrence Howard about the lead role (Vin Diesel, had been rumored at one point too, oddly), and that Disney was reportedly interested to the tune of $35m, roughly half of what the production was estimated to need. Schulberg also explained the title: “That is based on the story of a young black kid that’s being executed. When they strapped him down, attaching all the things to him, he actually cried out, ‘Save me Joe Louis!’ In fact we have that scene in the film. Joe Louis was like a god really.”
But it looks like, story of his life, and of this list, Lee couldn’t get anyone to pony up the other half of the budget and the film lost whatever momentum it had once built up. That said, of the three biopics mentioned, it’s the only subject that hasn’t had a big-screen adaptation greenlit elsewhere, so perhaps we can keep the home fires burning for this one a little longer. Lee himself has certainly never removed it entirely from the realm of possibility.