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Guess who's coming to a theater near you? Only a few movies adapted from books by black authors make their way to the silver screen. A handful of intriguing projects now in development are poised to beat new and diversified paths through Hollywood.

It's always been something of a mystery how books are chosen in the first place for Hollywood's magical conversion from page to screen, and then ultimately make their way through the development process, as it is known in Hollywood. But consider this: With today's explosive proliferation of books by African American authors, is it possible that our books could more frequently make that fabled leap into movie theaters?

Well, as the thinking goes in bottom-line-conscious Hollywood, books from the African American literary canon can be so creatively unwieldy, and also have such a defined (read finite) audience as to make them very poor sources for popcorn movies that play in Peoria. But of course such challenges never stood in the way of multifaceted fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings--a trilogy, no less--making it to the neighborhood multiplex and also making big box office returns.

So far the most popular dramatic films featuring black characters area a 180-degree turn from epic fantasy, lending more toward the here-and-now of contemporary life or the then-and now of actual history. In recent years, black autobiography has been one of the more reliable sources for successful films. From Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965); to Antwone Fisher's 2001 memoir Finding Fish, the basis for Denzel Washington's 2002 directorial debut Antwone Fisher, stories of individual black lives have powerfully translated to the movies.

But interestingly enough, the first books by African-American authors to be adapted for film didn't focus on black life at all. The 1946 novel The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby (1916-1991) subtly deconstructed the Old South of Gone with the Wind without shifting the focus from the plantation Big House like Alice Randall's controversial 2001 novel, The Wind Done Gone. Indeed, Yerby's popular historical romances brought huge financial rewards to an author many readers didn't realize was African-American, long before Maya Angelou or Terry McMillan made their own distinctive literary marks and took them to the bank.

Similarly, African-American author Willard Motley (1906-1965) wrote a novel with an Italian-American protagonist that became a bestseller in 1947. Knock on Any Door was subsequently made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Motley died in relative obscurity in Mexico living on his small royalty income.

Not quite as stealthily, one of Chester Himes genre novels--gritty police procedurals written in the '50s and '60s--would make it through '70s Hollywood. Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, the uptown partners from the 1965 novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, were portrayed on film by Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques. Not until the 1990 did another Himes novel come to the screen, when Bill Duke directed actor Forrest Whitaker in A Rage in Harlem.

Meanwhile, Ernest Tidyman wrote a novel called Shaft, and he screenplay he adapted, as directed by Gordon Parks Jr., went on to become the template for a whole genre of "blaxploitation films." Samuel L. Jackson recently reprised the Shaft mystique under the direction of John Shagleton, but blaxploitation lives most authentically in print with the commercial success of today's "street life fiction" genre, although white filmmaker Quentin Tarrantino is a self-professed disciple with his over-the-top Kill Bill. However, director Bill Duke intends to reclaim and reinvest in blaxploitation magic in his adaptation of Iceberg Slim's Pimp, now in development with Fox Searchlight.

Nearly two decades after the trailblazing film Cotton Comes to Harlem, the 1995 adaptation of Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress proved that a top-shelf mystery adaptation with a highly bankable star like Denzel Washington could put butts in the seats. The question is whether we'll have to wait a decade or more for another theatrical release of an Easy Rawlins sequel, despite abundance of Rawlins novels available and ripe for the plucking.

The feature theatrical film for the big screen, after all, is what makes the movies The Movies. Lately, however, films made for television--especially cable--exhibit the crisp, involved production values, characterization and dialogue of feature films. TV films are increasingly seen a lower-cost alternative to the bloated budgets of a major motion picture. Mosley's Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned and Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson before Dying are two examples of blackbooks-to-film that found their audience on the small screen. (No real surprise if you recall the grounbraking network productions in the 1970s of Alex Haley's Roots and Ernest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson.) God bless HBO!

In the 1990s came the blockbuster success of Terry McMillan in both bookstores and onscreen. From Waiting to Exhale to How Stella Got Her Groove Back to Disappearing Acts (another cable adaptation), McMillan has proven she's got the ability to tell personal stories that resonate with a wide slice of the movie-going public: women. But then there was Oprah Winfrey's 1999 box office disappointment with her production of Toni Morrison's Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme. How could a high-quality adaptation of a respected literary work by one of the world's most celebrated authors, which also starred America's most successful media personality and entrepreneur fail?

But fail it did, and the Beloved experience has been credited with an unfortunate chilling effect on film adaptations of black novels of similar ambition and scope. Still, Oprah's Harpo studio has announced plans to produce a TV version of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Halle Berry, but as no shooting date has yet been confirmed.

Theatrical release remains the goal for My Soul to Keep, Tananarive Due's acclaimed 1998 supernatural thriller, the story of a 500-year old Ethiopian immortal who, living as an attractive, worldly professor, has married a contemporary black professional woman and started picture-perfect affluent African-American family. The novel has been optioned for development by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and Blair Underwood is set to star in the production as well as being one its producers. (See accompanying story "Blair Underwood Goes for the Greenlight," page 25.)

There's also a long-awaited independent production of Tina Ansa McElroy's Baby in the Family. Ironically, in Hollywood terms, it's considered another supernatural thriller, this time set in 1950s Georgia. Cast members being lined up include Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine, Vanessa Williams, Alfre Woodard and CCH Pounder.

There's a certainly a treasure trove of black literature available to imaginative filmmakers. What's needed both from filmmakers and the financiers is the courage to step out of the box of the typical development and distribution models and simply stay the course.

Books on Black Film Trends

In Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film (Temple University Press, February 2003, $19.95, ISBN 1-592 003-8), Paula J. Masood, assistant professor of film studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York explains, "It is keey that this most recent generation of filmmakers, Malcolm D. Lee, Theodore Witcher, Kasi Lemmons, George Tillman and Gina Price-Bythewood, for example did not debut with films that were set in the hood, instead moving into a variety of genres and styles, many of which do not focus on the city at all and some of which do not focus solely on African American subject matter."

"I don't think there will be "black films" for very much longer. Films will be judged primarily on marketability and quality," predicts director Gary Hardwicke (Deliver Us From Eva, Radio). But black filmmakers' passions will continue to run deep no matter what, if the way they speakto their own artistry in Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema (Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, February 2003, $15.95, ISBN 0-7679-1181-4) is any indication.

If the term "black film" no longer seems as relevant as it did when African Americans were first trying to create a niche in Movieland, many will argue that if it weren't for that label, we wouldn't be where we are today.

With additional reporting by Susan McHenry and Lisa J. Coleman

Michael E. Ross has been a reporter, critic and editor at various newspapers, including The New York Times. A one-time adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, he is now a reporter and news editor at His novel Flagpole Days was published in November 2003 by 1st Books Library. Ross goes behind the scenes of films adapted from books by black authors for his part of our cover story package, "Guess Who's Coming to a Theater Near You?" on page 22.
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Author:Ross, Michael E.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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