According to deadline.com, creator/writer/actor Issa Rae, via her production company ColorCreative, has signed a multi-picture production deal with Columbia Pictures. ColorCreative will work primarily with and support projects from emerging, diverse screenwriters.
Globally successful, profitable films such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have demonstrated the commercial appeal of movies with leads of color and from their perspective, but so far movies like these remain the exception, not the rule. A recent study from USC stated that only 29.3% of characters in the 100 top grossing movies of 2017 were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
Selected participants, to be announced in spring 2019, will work with Rae and Columbia to develop and write features based on their original ideas.
“Issa is a force of nature, and a magnet for talented people,” said Sanford Panitch, president of Columbia Pictures, in a statement. “We couldn’t be more excited to join her in her mission to pave the way for fresh and authentic voices.”
Bryan Smiley, VP of production at Columbia Pictures, oversaw the deal and will oversee production and development with ColorCreative for the motion picture group. Sara Rastogi, VP of production for ColorCreative, will also help guide the deal for the company along with Deniese Davis, COO of ColorCreative.
“Working with Bryan Smiley and Columbia Pictures to further the mission ColorCreative set out to achieve four years ago in creating access for underrepresented writers, has been a dream come true,” Rae said in a statement. “All of the projects we are working on are fresh and promising and we can’t wait to continue the work. We hope to set a precedent and inspire the industry at large to invest in undiscovered talent, original IP, and fresh stories and perspectives.”
For The Hollywood Reporter’s largest shoot ever, members of Black Women Who Brunch, a networking group co-founded by Lena Waithe, gather to discuss how the industry can better understand black women in Hollywood: “We have to be exceptional.”
In 2014, Nkechi Okoro Carroll was an executive story editor on Bones when she met an up-and-coming scribe named Lena Waithe at a WGA Committee of Black Writers event. The two hit it off, so much so that Okoro Carroll got the future Emmy winner — whose major credit at the time was writing for the Nickelodeon series How to Rock — hired as a staff writer on her Fox procedural, making Waithe the second black woman in the room. “Aren’t you worried she’s going to take your job?” a fellow writer on staff asked Okoro Carroll.
“You should be worried she’ll take your job,” retorted Okoro Carroll, now showrunning The CW’s All American. What the duo felt was not competition but kinship: “We often felt like unicorns,” Okoro Carroll says. “When someone asked me to recommend mid-level female writers [of color] for a job, I was appalled to realize I didn’t know many names.”
Together with Erika L. Johnson, then writing for BET’s Being Mary Jane, the women decided to create a network of black female TV writers themselves. Twelve assembled for the March 2014 inaugural meeting of what came to be known as Black Women Who Brunch (BWB); today, the membership nears 80. “This group is the proof” against and antidote to “people saying, ‘We can’t find any black female writers,'” says Johnson, now a co-executive producer on NBC’s upcoming The Village.
BWB holds potlucks at Okoro Carroll’s house every few months (usually about 30 members are available at one time) to toast triumphs and troubleshoot challenges. “It’s not just a community we’re building, but a resource,” says Waithe. “We really are able to recommend eight or nine black women for certain jobs.”
In August, BWB took its first off-site trip — a weekend getaway to Palm Springs. And in November, 62 members gathered for THR‘s biggest photo shoot ever, where they revealed what they wish their colleagues knew about being a black woman in the business.
The first Black actress to earn a lead dramatic Emmy will bring another pioneering Black woman, Shirley Chisholm, to life on screen.
Deadline reported yesterday (November 29) that Viola Davis will produce and star in “The Fighting Shirley Chisholm.” This will be the “Widows” star’s first project under the first look deal that JuVee Productions, the company she co-heads with husband Julius Tennon, recently signed with Amazon Studios. Davis confirmed the project today (November 30) by retweeting JuVee’s tweet with one of the late Democratic politician’s quotes:
"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair." Love you Ms. Chisholm. Unbought and Unbossed!!!♥️ https://t.co/Be0bWlXeWb
According to Variety.com, Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor Viola Davis and her producer husband Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions has just signed an exclusive first-look feature production deal with Amazon Studios, putting the streaming service in business with one of the most acclaimed and honored thespians of the modern day.
JuVee Productions signed an overall deal with ABC in early 2016, for television development and production. But Davis has been working with Amazon as a producer on the upcoming movie comedy “Troupe Zero,” which co-stars Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan. The film will be released in 2019.
“Amazon Studios is passionate about building a home for both new and established filmmakers of all backgrounds, who share the same vision in telling incredible and engaging human stories,” Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios, said in a statement. “Viola and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions brings distinctive, fresh voices and high-quality content to our customers in both theaters and on Prime Video.”
Davis continues to headline the ABC hit “How to Get Away With Murder” and is starring in movies like this fall’s “Widows.”
According to rollingstone.com and deadline.com, Chance the Rapper is augmenting his long list of side projects by partnering with Haight Films and Tradecraft to produce a new movie musical called Hope for MGM. Hope follows a group of teenagers who turn “art into [community] action.”
Chance’s longtime musical collaborator Nico Segal — formerly known as Donnie Trumpet — is in charge of the music for the film. Segal has worked with Chance for his entire career, and helmed Surf, The Social Experiment’s 2015 album. Carlito Rodriguez, a writer for Empire and The Leftovers, will write the script.
Chance the Rapper became the first streaming-only artist to win a Grammy Award for his album Coloring Book, which became the first to chart on the Billboard 200 based solely on streaming, rising to Number 8. On the social activism front, Chance has long given back to the Chicago community he grew up in and that includes; donating $1 million to local schools; and creating Social Works, an organization aimed at empowering youth through arts, education and civic engagement within the city. The movie furthers that message of empowerment.
Chance’s longtime manager Pat Corcoran, said: “From day one, our mission at Haight Films has been to apply Haight Brand’s artist-first and Chicago-proud ideology to the film space. We are incredibly excited to be working alongside Chance, MGM and Scott Bernstein [of Tradecraft] to bring this vision to life.”
Forty-six years after an Aretha Franklin gospel concert film was shot and abandoned, amazement is truly in order. The Franklin estate and producer Alan Elliott have reached an agreement to release the perpetually delayed “Amazing Grace” project, Variety can exclusively reveal. Although no distribution deal is yet in place for a planned general release in 2019, the film will premiere next Monday at the DOC NYC festival, followed by week-long Oscar-qualifying runs this month in Los Angeles and in December in New York.
“In recent weeks, Alan presented the film to the family at the African American Museum here, and we absolutely love it,” said Sabrina Owens, the late star’s niece and executor of her estate, in a phone interview from Detroit Sunday. “We can see Alan’s passion for the movie, and we are just as passionate about it. It’s in a very pure environment, very moving and inspirational, and it’s an opportunity for those individuals who had not experienced her in a gospel context to see how diverse her music is. We are so excited to be a part of this.”
The premiere is a very late addition to the long-since-announced DOC NYC festival; tickets for the Nov. 12 screening at the SVA Theatre go on sale this afternoon. “Amazing Grace” is then set for a qualifying run at the Laemmle Monica Nov. 20-27, followed by a week at Manhattan’s Film Forum Dec. 7-14. Official premiere events for L.A. and Detroit are in the early stages of being planned for next year. The Franklin family and Elliott believe a distribution deal will come quickly but wanted to get the film ready for awards consideration first, then cross that bridge.
Very quietly, the film had already snuck onto the Oscars’ voting-member viewing site, and Elliott has been receiving calls of congratulation from Academy members who’ve streamed it there. The producer said he’d gotten advice from agents and prospective publicists that they should wait to put it out for another year, to allow time for a multi-million-dollar Oscar campaign — but he and Owens hope it will contend now, without that, as a word-of-mouth underdog, and not just in the documentary category but for best picture.
The film was originally scheduled to premiere at the Telluride and Toronto festivals in 2015, before Franklin’s lawyers were granted an injunction in court in Denver halting the showings. Her attorneys argued the singer had the right to deny the use of her likeness in the movie, while Elliott maintained that all rights had been granted when he bought the uncompleted footage from Warner Bros. Following the Telluride standoff, Elliott and Franklin’s team agreed to negotiate in good faith with the aim of making the singer a partner in the movie; as Variety reported, separate distribution deals with Lionsgate and Concord were on the table before talks stalled as Franklin grew more ill.
The legal wrangling created the appearance of enmity between camps, and the late singer was not always an easy read when it came to business matters. But in the midst of the imbroglio, Franklin told the Detroit Free Press that she “loved” the movie, a DVD edit of which Elliott had sent her years ago. The quality of the film itself was never at issue, as it straightforwardly documented what many Franklin buffs consider to be her greatest performance, a two-night stand of pure gospel music recorded with an ace band of Atlantic Records musicians and the Rev. James Cleveland’s choir at a South-Central L.A. church in January 1972 — as released in audio form later that year on what is still the bestselling gospel album of all time.
Elliott had been friends for years with Owens, who invited him to Franklin’s funeral in Detroit Aug. 31. Two weeks later, he went back to the Charles Wright African American Museum to screen the movie for Franklin’s family and their friends, who were all seeing it for the first time. The reaction there, they both say, was jubilant, with a feeling of urgency coming out of the screening about getting it before the public sooner rather than later.
“I think the movie stands by itself, so it would have a good run whether it’s next year or it was two or three years ago,” says Elliott. “But obviously, her singularity and her absence are really felt right now, so I think there is that energy toward rediscovering things that she did. And I feel that this performance is really her crowning achievement — and I think she felt that way too. As much as anything, I wish she had been here to be a part of it, especially since she said she loved the movie.”
Elliott hopes for a Detroit premiere in April, with plans to involve the Poor People’s Campaign and Clean Water for Flint on a charitable level. “Detroit is a powerful home base, I think, for ‘Amazing Grace’,” he says, “even though I think it’s a Los Angeles thing. too. We’ve been working with Superintendent Mark Ridley Thomas to get historical status for the New Missionary Baptist Church (where the album and film were made).”
The picture was locked for its would-be Telluride premiere three years ago, but late last week, Elliott was back in a Hollywood studio working on separate stereo and 5.1 mixes of the audio with Jimmy Douglass, a well-known engineer and mixer. Douglass is most renowned nowadays for his work on hip-hop albums like Jay-Z’s “4:44” and as Timbaland’s long-time right-hand man, but he started out in the early ‘70s working on rock, pop and R&B albums at Atlantic, where one of his first assignments was helping mix the “Amazing Grace” album.
Douglass worked on the movie, like a lot of participants, on his own dime a few years ago. Is he surprised to be working in 2018 on something he started in 1972? “I’m never surprised,” Douglass laughs, taking a break while Franklin’s perspiring image appears frozen above the mixing board. “Am I happy I’m working on it one more time? Of course I am. Always. Alan tracked me down years ago and showed up with this amazing project, and as far as I was concerned, I was the only person on the planet who should have my hands in it. There’s nobody else around who was as close to that whole school that’s actually still out there slaying the beast and still making hits that should be touching this. I was like, ‘That’s mine, I’m sorry.’ And here we are.”
Viewers might quibble over whether it’s technically a concert movie or a church service movie, but it’s foremost a music movie. “Aretha says six words in the movie,” Elliott points out. “She says, ‘What key is it, E?’ and then she says, ‘Water.’ So, obviously getting the music right is the thing we can do best by her legacy, I think.”
Douglass has worked on the movie over a period of about eight years. Elliott, considerably longer. “I’m really excited for people to get it because I think it is the premiere document of American popular music that was ever filmed,” says the producer, “and I could never figure out why we never got to see it. And it started 27 years ago when Jerry Wexler (the album’s late producer) said to me, ‘By the way, we filmed “Amazing Grace”.’ Twenty-seven years is a long time to wait to see a movie.”
Years before director Sydney Pollack’s death in 2008, he encouraged Elliott to buy and complete the footage he had shot in 1972; the filmmaker went to Warner Bros. and gave them his blessing to sell Elliott the film, which had languished in storage for decades after problems synching visuals and audio make it impossible to edit with the existing technology. The film is going out without a directorial credit, after years of debate about whether Pollack would want to be credited on a project he wasn’t able to see through after the initial shoot.
For Owens, the film “shows Aretha in a very different light. She’s very youthful, very shy, and her voice is just beautiful throughout, at an age when her voice was absolutely crystal-clear and very pure. It’s very moving and inspirational, and I enjoy it as a fan of the church and gospel music beyond just the fact that it’s my aunt singing. This just seems like the best time, because I think any time an artist passes, they’re fresh on people’s minds and hearts. But also, I think people want something in a very spiritual mode, and I think this is a feel-good movie that could be very uplifting in a time of turmoil in our country.”
According to Variety.com, Academy Award-winning producer/writer/director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight“) and his PASTEL production banner have landeda first-look television deal at Amazon.
Jenkins is planning to direct the entire limited series “Underground Railroad” at Amazon, based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning novel from 2016. Under the deal, Jenkins will exclusively develop television series for Amazon Studios.
“Barry is clearly a master of groundbreaking, authentically emotional storytelling and we are so proud to have him share that gift with us,” said Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios. “We are incredibly fortunate to have also secured his directorial vision for the entire limited series The Underground Railroad.”
“We at PASTEL are excited to continue our Amazon relationship begun on ‘Underground Railroad’ and look forward to growing that partnership on projects near and beyond,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins’ feature film debut, “Medicine for Melancholy,” was lauded as one of the best films of 2009 by The New York Times. He recently debuted his latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on James Baldwin’s novel and starring Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry, at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The U.S. release in theaters is scheduled for November 30 of this year.
Producer/director Ava DuVernay is working with Netflix on a Prince documentary, two sources have confirmed to Variety. The project has the full cooperation of the late artist’s estate, which is providing with interviews, archival footage and photos. The multiple-part documentary will cover the artist’s entire life.
While renowned for her work on “Selma,” “Queen Sugar” and others, DuVernay made her big-screen debut in 2008 with “This Is the Life,” which chronicled the alternative hip-hop scene in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
A source also said that a documentary about Prince and the Revolution’s legendary concert at Minneapolis’ First Avenue in August of 1983 has landed at Apple Music. The show featured the premieres of several songs that would appear on the “Purple Rain” album and film nearly a year later, and, in fact, the album versions of three of those songs were recorded at the show (albeit with overdubs added later). The concert marked the debut of guitarist Wendy Melvoin and the “Purple Rain”-era incarnation of the Revolution.
Video and audio recordings from the concert and its rehearsals have been circulating on bootleg for many years, and feature a longer take of “Purple Rain” with an additional, seemingly ad-libbed verse that was dropped from the official version. Another song from the concert, “Electric Intercourse,” was originally mooted for the album but was replaced by the similar but superior song, “The Beautiful Ones.” A studio version of “Electric Intercourse” was finally released on the “Purple Rain” deluxe edition in 2017, although many fans consider the live version to be better.
More than 80 movies by and about African Americans will be screened in D.C. next week as part of the inaugural Smithsonian’s African American Film Festival.
The four-day festival, which runs from Oct. 24 – 27, includes films ranging from Hollywood hits to experimental shorts. The event is organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The festival’s goal is to introduce the breadth and depth of African American film to a wider audience, according to Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the museum’s deputy director.
“There’s something for the cinephile who knows film like that back of her or his hand, and there’s something for the person who’s just learning about African American film,” she said. “From the most popular to the most provocative, it is all here.”
Most of the screenings will take place in the museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theater, though the Freer|Sackler and National Gallery of Art will also host some screenings.
The festival kicks off on Wednesday night with Widows, a new film starring Viola Davis that doesn’t hit theaters until mid-November. The director, Steve McQueen, became the first black filmmaker to win an Academy Award for Best Picture for his 2013 film 12 Years A Slave. If you’re interested in attending the Widows screening, you’re unfortunately out of luck – it’s already sold out.
The festival will also give audiences the chance to see films from the museum’s extensive collection. These range from Garden, a five-minute experimental short from 2017, to Black Panthers, a 1968 documentary about the Black Panther Party and its members’ fight to free their imprisoned co-founder Huey P. Newton.
And while the 2017 Marvel superhero movie Black Panther isn’t part of the lineup, attendees of the festival’s “Night at the Museum” celebration on Oct. 25 will be able to see the costume worn by actor Chadwick Boseman in the blockbuster film on display for the first time. The museum acquired the costume and other objects from the film earlier this year.
Netflix will stream its new documentary Quincy on Friday, Oct. 26. The film tells the story of the iconic music producer and singer Quincy Jones; it was co-produced by his daughter, the actress Rashida Jones. The titular Jones will speak on a panel following the screening.
If you’d rather talk than watch, you can attend one of the festival’s free Exchanges forums at the Freer|Sackler. Discussion topics include stop-motion animation and the museum’s home movie digitization project, Great Migration. Under that program, visitors can bring in home videos made on obsolete media (we’re talking eight-millimeter film and cassettes) and get them digitized and preserved.
“What it allows us to do,” said Rhea Combs, the museum’s film and photographer curator, “is tell the American story through the African American lens. Literally.”
The festival also builds upon work started by the D.C. Black Film Festival to highlight lesser-known black filmmakers and actors for the Washington audience. “We don’t ever want to be the all-consuming Smithsonian that comes into a community and takes over,” Conwill said of its role in the broader film festival ecosystem. The D.C. Black Film Festival celebrated its second event this year.
The African American Film Festival’s closing day features an awards ceremony for the juried film competition. Fifteen finalist films are competing in six different categories: Best Documentary Short, Best Narrative Short, Best Documentary Feature, Best Narrative Feature, Best Experimental & Animation, and the Audience Award.
The festival closes Saturday night with a screening of a film adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.
You can buy tickets for specific films or events here, and see the full slate of screenings here. The festival is scheduled to recur every other year at the museum.
According to the Associated Press, Johns Hopkins University and the family of Henrietta Lacks announced a new building on the school’s campus in East Baltimore will be named after the woman whose cells were taken without her consent and widely used in revolutionary cell research.
News outlets report the building will support programs promoting research and community engagement. Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the university where researchers soon discovered her cells reproduced indefinitely in test tubes.
For decades, it was not widely known that a black woman who was a patient at Hopkins was the unwitting source of the famous HeLa cells. It was only once Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was published in 2010 that Lacks’ story gained national attention. Oprah Winfrey subsequently produced and starred in a 2016 HBO biopic of Lacks’ life.
The announcement was part of the 9th Annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture, NBC 4 reports. Lacks’ granddaughter, Jeri Lacks, says the honor befits her grandmother’s role in advancing modern medicine.
Last year, the city of Baltimore designated October 4 as Henrietta Lacks Day to recognize the contributions of the woman behind the HeLa cells.