By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist November 27, 2013 at 4:32PM
“Untitled Marion Barry Project”
Any trawl through Lee’s catalogue of unmade films will find you constantly bumping into familiar names in terms of collaborators, but perhaps no title boasts more than the biopic of notorious Washington Mayor Marion Barry, to which Lee was attached back in late 2011. The film was to be scripted by John “12 Years a Slave” Ridley (who worked on the original incarnation of Lee’s abortive “LA Riots”), was set up at HBO, which had backed Lee’s Katrina documentaries and was home to the Mike Tyson-inspired, Lee co-created boxing drama show “Da Brick” until it wasn’t, and most excitingly was to feature Eddie Murphy in the lead role. Murphy, you’ll recall from several thousand words ago, was at one time the frontrunner to play James Brown in Lee’s biopic before nasty old Tate Taylor stole the march on that one.
Frankly put, Marion Barry’s life story is cray, a rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and (you get the message) narrative that encompasses his civil rights activism and four terms as D.C. mayor, but also his imprisonment, and the infamous incident, recently echoed by Toronto’s favorite son Rob Ford, in which a videotape of him smoking crack cocaine was leaked to media. Certainly Lee had all the elements in place to do justice to this larger-than-life figure, and with Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood (authors of the book "Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.") and Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer (documentarians behind "The Nine Lives Of Marion Barry") all on board as consultants, it can be assumed that the slant would have been maybe less scabrous, but no less controversial, than that espoused by the Chris Rock-scripted, Jamie Foxx-starring 2002 version that never got going. Barry himself has so far refused to comment on the Lee film.
Still, we’ve not heard a peep about it since, and if this list has taught us anything, it’s to be wary when word on a Spike Lee project goes quiet. But really, it feels like this could be a great vehicle for the maverick-but-maybe-mellowing filmmaker to team up at last with the maverick-but-maybe-mellowing movie star.
“Porgy and Bess”
In something of a coup, if we do say so ourselves, in August 2012, when we sat down with Lee during press rounds for “Red Hook Summer,” we’d already put together the long-murmured rumors of his interest in adapting “Porgy and Bess” into a movie musical with a recent tweet that indicated he’d just been to see the Tony-winning Broadway revival of the Gershwin show. When we asked him about it, Lee confirmed that he was at that point trying to get his film version to happen, but, hold our horses, he had been engaged in that process for more than ten years. The main issue this time out wasn’t even budget (looks like he never quite got that far), but a complicated rights tangle involving the estates of George Gershwin and of DuBose Heyward, on whose libretto (and 1925 novel) the famous folk opera was originally based. Part of their hesitance was apparently due to historic disappointment over the now difficult-to-find 1959 version, which, despite a wonderful cast including Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey, featured poorly dubbed singing voices in addition to other production problems like an acrimonious change of director mid-shoot.
“I want to make it, but I'm in long discussions with both estates,” Lee told us back then adding that it had long been an ambition of his to direct a musical. “Porgy and Bess” the opera details the attempts of a disabled beggar living in Charleston (Porgy) to save the woman he loves, Bess, from the clutches of her violent lover Crown, and from the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, and features some absolutely knockout tunes in the form of “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess You Is My Woman” and the goosebump-inducing “I Loves You Porgy,” so it would be fascinating to see what Lee would do with a screen version. However, Lee's name went deafeningly unmentioned when, in April of this year, Variety reported that producers Mike Medavoy and Bobby Geisler were developing a “reenvisioned and updated” version of the opera, and that they had secured the cooperation of both estates. In fact, Marc George Gershwin (nephew of George and Ira) said, “We get approached a lot with ideas that aren’t very good but Mike [Medavoy] has a great track record. We’re confident that he’s going to able to find the right director and writer. And we already have the music.” Which seems to imply that to their knowledge, Lee who had been petitioning them for those very rights for a decade or more, has no involvement with this new take. Which, if it's true, well, ouch.
These are hardly the only rumored projects of Lee’s that haven’t come to pass—he also had a couple of projects that were to star Justin Timberlake, one being his big-screen version of “Rent,” which was of course was taken on in 2005 instead by the chalk to Lee’s cheese, Chris Columbus. However the second was still alive as of last month, anyway, and is “Spinning Gold,” a biopic of Neil Bogart, the producer behind acts as diverse as Curtis Mayfield and the Village People. In 2012, meantime, Lee suggested that he might in future tackle a Stevie Wonder documentary, which we would see a little more hope for than for some others on this list being as Lee has a relationship with Wonder, and a track record of getting documentary projects off the ground with comparative ease. But the one we can be kinda sure about now, since Lee’s successful if controversial Kickstarter campaign is the awesomely titled “Da Blood of Jesus” or occasionally “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” which featuring Zaraah Abrahams, Steven Tyrone Williams and the great Michael K. Williams, is already in the can as of October. Asked to describe it, Lee as ever kept plot details schtum, but said “It’s scary. Humorous. Bloody. Sexy. [Blood is a] metaphor. As we all know, human beings have many addictions. Drugs, sex, alcohol, power, money, Air Jordans. In this one they’re addicted to blood. We shot in New York, Martha’s Vineyard, and we’re editing now." So we’ll be hoping for more news soon on a potential festival premiere next year, with a newfound appreciation of how apparently unlikely and tortuous it is for any Spike Lee film ever ever to make it to our screens.