10 Classic Black Books That Should Be Made Into Films
It seems that Hollywood loves a good biopic, particular on Black people. What can we say, we’re just that entertaining and interesting. Currently there are several biopics in production including a flick on Jimi Hendrix, Richard Pryor (said to be directed by Lee Daniels) and even a film on Nat Turner called Birth of A Nation. This is on top of a list of about 50 biopics about Black people, which are said to still be in consideration.
This is great but what about made-up stories? I’m talking about films based on literature produced by Black people. As many of us know, there are so many great Black writers out there beyond the likes of Morrison, Walker, Baldwin and other favorites. And their novels and stories have yet to receive the Tinseltown treatment. And just for some perspective here, Hollywood has turned 33 books into film last year. None of them were written by an African American.
So in an effort to help the status quo help us, by producing content outside of another Dr. King or even Nelson Mandela biopic, I present a list of 10 classic books written by Black people, which would make great films. For reference purposes, I made this list partially using the African American Literature Book Club list of Favorite 100 African American Books of the 20th Century as inspiration.
by Ralph Ellison
By far my favorite book of all time. Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist is the best visual representation of what it is like to be a Black man (or woman) in America. For those who haven’t read it, Invisible Man tells the story of a Black boy-turned-man surviving in a world, which doesn’t see, care or even respect his autonomy. What’s great about the book is that it is a metaphor just as much as it is straightforward and reflective of reality. Therefore, I don’t see there being much concern about certain meanings being lost-in-translation to live action – unless of course, they just trying to hide the truth.
The Patternist Series
by Octavia Butler
Listen, those who are familiar with my work here at MN, know that I am a huge fan of Octavia Butler. In short, I think she is a prophetess. And while I know that other followers of Prophet Butler folks were expecting me to say Kindred, which is the more obvious and celebrated choice. However, I also know that folks are tired of slave narrative in any form. And I would hate for the world, and large portion of the Black community, to be introduced to Butler’s work via a historical drama, which folks are tired of seeing. Plus this has aliens. And people who can do things with their minds. And whatever the Hell was going on in Clay’s Ark. Plus sex, drama and a whole bunch of other craziness to keep everyone entertained. Who says Black people don’t know how to do mythologies?
Possessing the Secret of Joy
by Alice Walker
Who doesn’t like a good sequel?
And for those who are unaware, The Color Purple didn’t end with Celie, Nettie and her family playing hand games out in the lavender fields. Instead the story continued on with Tashi, the continental wife of Celie’s son Adam. Her oppression is female circumcision. And she suffers through a lifetime of both physical, emotional and psychological pain, which eventually leads her to death row. As a film, this story would not be for the faint at heart, especially if you have a misogynistic heart. And I don’t know if this would have mainstream appeal (the same people who object to slave narratives, might also take issue with the un-romanticized version of some African culture as it pertains to women). However I’m all for the diversity of the Black female narrative, particularly as it relates to the various ways we bend ourselves to appease society.
And This Too Shall Pass
by E. Lynn Harris
Okay this one is a bit complicated. As reported by Shadow & Act, Edmonds Entertainment, along with and Proteus E2 Productions, supposedly had “structured a multi-picture deal” to bring Harris’ films to the big screen. However Harris’ mother said, nuh-uh, y’all don’t have legal rights to my son’s books. And then she sued. Anyway, the project is caught up in a bunch of legal drama, that we can’t even blame Hollywood for.
Still, E. Lynn Harris is by far the most pioneering voice in Black GLBTQA literature, whose books found homes in lots of non-gay Black households. Hell, I knew some hardcore conservative Black Baptist Christians who were all fire and brimstone homophobic, yet enjoyed a Harris book or two. I don’t know what that means but it has to mean something.
A superstar quarterback facing charges of sexual assault questions his own feelings about his sexuality after becoming friendly with a gay sportswriter covering his case…it’s the kind story that episodes of Maury are made of. Or better yet The Best Man. Anyway, what made his stories so relatable are that they are well-written messes. And gay, straight, or unicorn, all of our lives are pretty messy.
by Omar Tyree
Honestly, a film version about this young girl from Philly has been long overdue. And according to Variety, CodeBlack Entertainment, along with Lionsgate, are playing to produce a film version based off of one of the books in the trilogy. However as it reads in Deadline, it sounds like the film will focus more on the sequel to Flyy Girl and not the book that started it all. And it is a shame. I don’t know why urban literature gets left out of the book-to-film discussion as much as it does, but this kind of discrimination has got to stop because we are overlooking some good narratives. And while it might be slightly dated, it still works for me as a period piece to highlight what it was like to be young, Black girl growing up under Ronald Reagan’s urban America. Although Tyree is obviously a man I think he did a pretty decent job capturing certain diversity among young women within urban environments. And I think that lots of young women will see themselves in Tracey, the book’s protagonist, who is all about boys and fast money, and yet still survived it all. She was messy but she was bright. And that is not an unusually existence for many young women, in general.
Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe
Technically, this is already a movie. However it is extremely dated and bootlegged. No disrespect to our ancestors and our kinfolks on the continent who put together the original film, but we can do better with a bigger budget. Matter of fact, it is hard to reconcile why this classic and critically acclaimed book about a prideful family man in a colonized Nigeria hasn’t gotten the Hollywood treatment – not even by Black Hollywood. What makes a film version of this book compelling is that it not only addresses the difficulties of fighting to maintain one’s cultural autonomy with an aggressive evading culture on the horizon but the story also sharply critiques the ways in which apathy and even greed contributed to our collective oppression. Plus with the right director, we are looking at some very beautiful visuals of pre-colonized Africa.
My Soul to Keep/The Living Blood
by Tananarive Due
I don’t just want to see this book become a film just because her first name is the capital of Madagascar and I love saying “Tananarive.” But because this series is actually pretty awesome. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s really a simple love story: girl meets boy; boy is everything she has ever wanted in a man so she marries him; girl later finds out that boy is a 400 year old Ethiopian immortal and he wants to make her, and their child, immortal too. Yup, just your typical romance novel.
Seriously though, narratives around Black people are sorely missing in the horror/sci-fi film genre. So seeing both of these books turn into film, would be nothing short of revolutionary. And good watching too.
Brothers and Sisters
Bebe Moore Campbell
The late ’80’s and ’90’s were almost sort of an unspoken renaissance for contemporary Black writers. I’m talking Eric Jerome Dickey, Terry McMillan, Sheneska Jackson and of course, Bebe Moore Campbell. While the story itself, which takes place during the time of the L.A. Riots, would now teeter the line of being historical fiction; modern day Black women will find kinship in the story’s black lady professional protagonist who not only struggles with the white folks in her corporate job in banking, but her blue-collar man with esteem issues of his own. Campbell knows how to paint a good picture in her stories. A good Hollywood script writer could make the backstory more relevant – say instead of the riots and the banking industry of the 90s, we can do L.A. after the economic crash and at the time of the start of Black Lives Matters.
Coffee Will Make You Black
Simply put, it is a story about race, sexuality and the internal conflict lots of us have with both. It’s also a coming-of-age story about an awkward Black girl, which I am all about seeing more of on the big screen. More specifically, Stevie is a product of working class household and Black respectability. In particular a mother who is overly-concerned with good grammar and Stevie not hanging around people she deems “low-class.” However her friends at school and in the neighborhood tend to be a bit more militant in its pro-Blackness and not too concerned about appeasing the White Man. Stevie wants to be like the cool kids yet she has feelings for a white person, in particular a white women. And now we see the conflict. A great and fun read, I can definitely see the live action version of this becoming an awkward Black girl film classic.
by Percival Everett
Okay, not technically a classic but it most certainly is in my household. To get right to the point: it’s a story about a frustrated Black novelist who, out of frustration with not selling copies of his re-imaged Greek literature in Blackface, decides to write a book called Ma Pafology under a pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. The book is Leigh’s blatantly offensive attempt to thumb his nose at the publishing industry, which promotes what he calls “ghetto fiction” over more “refined” art like what he writes. However to Leigh’s surprise that Ma Pafology is picked up by a major publishing house and goes on to have all sorts of commercial success.
I’m not a fan of respectability politics and this book revels in that. However, there are kernels of truth in what he writes, particularly about the lack of diverse voices and themes in publishing (and in entertainment in general). Plus the book is funny as much as it is bitingly smart. And on screen, it would definitely feel like Bamboozled, but in the publishing industry. Let’s hope that Angela Bassett and TD Jakes, who are said to be bringing this tale to screen under the title Book of the Year, actually make that happen.
So that is my list. I’m sure folks have their own ideas of classic Black literature, which would make great films. Be sure to leave them in the comment section below.