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McQueen Seeking New Writer for Fela Project…?


Following Tambay’s recent post about Chiwetel Ejiofor being cast to play Fela in the Focus Features film to be directed by Black British director Steve McQueen, it seems that the first script handed in by Biyi Bandele is not to McQueen’s liking.

Last weekend I heard from somone who has actually read the script that it was really good but that McQueen is looking for a new writer. This is somone who’s no stranger to scripts, so when they say it was good, I couldn’t but wonder how their definition of good and McQueen’s idea of what he wants to do don’t match.

At this stage I think it’s fair to mention that, back in July of last year when I first mentioned here that Bandele was writing the script, I was more excited by that and the anticipation of who might play the lead (Ejiofor is an excellent choice) than by the fact that McQueen was directing.

I have nothing against McQueen – he’s an excellent filmmaker. However, I do tend to have a problem with the depiction of Africa and Africans by non-Africans, even when they are members of the diaspora. As a Black Briton who, though born in the UK and resident in London, lived in Nigeria for 10 years, my reaction when it comes to the portrayal of Africans in general (and Nigerians in particular) tends to range from minor irritation to outright annoyance. It generally tends to be that Africa and her people are treated on screen by non-Africans either too simplistically or too romantically.

Last weekend I saw a play by an African-American playwrite whose work I have thoroughly enjoyed in the past. However, this particular play left me a litte disappointed. Good intentions aside, it lacked a cohesive story and, rather than concentrate on any character and/or story development, it instead threw in one issue after the other so that, even by the time the interval arrived, it was still unclear what, or even who, the play was about. In doing so, it inadvertently gave a rather clichéd and all too familiar view of Africa rather then give any insight to the people and situations. When I mentioned this to another member of the audience during the interval and asked what the story was, they blithely replied: “war, prostitution…” Um, those are themes, not a story. The play did redeem itself somewhat in the final scene but, for me, that was too little too late.

So it distresses me when even usually good writers can get it so wrong and, in their haste to put Africa and Africans in the foreground, they end up presenting a list of issues (even if they are issues that deserve to be aired), clichés and stereotypes instead of layered story with well developed characters.

Bandele is not a stranger to Nigeria; he’s Yoruba, from the same tribe and cultural background as Fela himself. I’ve not read his script (though I might yet…) but I’m assuming that there was a certain nuanced cultural sensitivity that will be either ignored, glossed over or misunderstood by anyone outisde of that culture. In Nigeria, Fela wasn’t just some funky, cool, radical African musician. His audience, first and foremost, was ordinary Nigerian people. Regardless of ethnicity, many Nigerians holds Fela dear and takes his music and lyrics to heart. Nigeria is not always an easy place to live in and prosper, especially if you have an opinion (Fela’s own life and the plight of his own mother attest to that) and yet it’s a country that has an exhilirating vibrancy and urgency to it that somehow also manages to take on a relaxed and laid back attitude; and it’s a place in which many thrive but where some even manage to succeed exceedingly, despite the obstacles of economic, governmental and infrastructural instability – and this is what Fela manages to somehow so brilliantly capture and export world-wide in/with his music.

Though understandable,  that his music spread to and found fans across the world is a remarkable boon from both a policitcal and artistic point of view. But while you can take Fela out of Nigeria, you can’t take Nigeria out of or away from Fela. A biopic of Fela cannot be divorced from Nigeria’s post-colonial socio-political history, and anyone tackling him as a subject needs to not just be aware of this, but address it adequately.

Having Bandele write the script was, in my view, a good move. I remember reading an Ang Lee interview a few years ago in The Guardian about the making of Lust, Caution. Lee did not write the script, his often collaborator, James Schamus (Head of Focus Features) wrote it. However, I do recall Lee’s insistence on cultural integrity and relevance to a Chinese audience, even if it meant a slight alienation of an American audience in the process.

Lust, Caution harks back to a time and place in China’s social political history and Lee stated emphatically in his interview: “It’s a lot of fun for the Chinese to watch the first half, to remind us of our innocence and how things used to be. Then comes the real deal. But for non-Chinese, you don’t get that benefit. I am sure the Chinese viewer will have a blast, but when the western viewer reads subtitles, it is very frustrating. You have that feeling: what the hell is going on. But I had to make the movie right for myself and for the Chinese audience.

The italicisation in the above quote is mine. While he wanted to make the movie right for the Chinese audience, Lee himself is a Taiwanese national, not Chinese (though, of course, his ethnicity is Chinese). In the same vein, therefore, I hope that McQueen manages to find the same balance of culturual authenticity and integrity for a Nigerian audience. Like Lust, Caution this is a Focus Features film; like Lust, Caution the director may share the same historical ethnicity as the protagonist(s) but not the same nationality; and, like Lust, Caution it may also end up with a writer from another nationality and ethnicity than that of the main protagonists. However, as is so often the case, I wonder if, unlike Lust, Caution, Focus Features will ignore the importance of cultural integrity, given that that the culture in question happens to be African. We’ll see…

Of course, seeing as I’ve not read Bandele’s unwanted script and that I don’t know what McQueen’s misgivings about it are, my thoughts and feelings on the matter might be misplaced and, to be honest, I sincerely hope they are. This is a project I’ve wanted to see happen for many years - years before I’d heard of McQueen and/or Focus Features and, while it will no doubt have avid fans of Fela the world over waiting in eager anticipation, I hope that it remembers that Fela was principally a voice of the people FOR the people… of Nigeria! My hope is that this audience will not be short changed.

3 comments to McQueen Seeking New Writer for Fela Project…?

  • I’ll take the old “wait and see” approach on this one, especially since Focus Features gave him (McQueen) creative control over the project. I’m sure they’ll have some input in the shaping of the film, but it appears, from what I’ve read on the matter, that it is a “Steve McQueen” project.

    Of course, I’m assuming that McQueen understands the importance/requirement of the task at hand.

    But we might also be making assumptions about Biyi Bandele’s abilities and intent, because of his background. I have 2 of his books, recently purchased, sitting on my desk, which I haven’t read yet, but will some time soon.

    From McQueen’s first film, to his other works of art that I’ve seen, and interviews with him I’ve watched or listened to, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in pandering to any particular audience – certainly not a mainstream American audience. So, if anything, at worst, I’d expect HIS take on Fela (whatever that might be), not necessarily the commercialized version.

    That may or may not put your mind at ease.

    I did see all of this year’s “Africa First” shorts that were created under the Focus Features program, and, as you probably saw in my review of “Pumzi,” I wasn’t too thrilled with the results – some. I only reviewed Pumzi, since it was the highest profile of the bunch. However, there were 2 others in the group that I thought were superior in terms of content and execution, and more genuine than I thought “Pumzi” was, which, as I said, suffered from a similar kind of ill that you fear “Fela” might under Focus Features’ watch.

    Anyway, given that we’ve only seen 1 film from McQueen, it’s a tough call at this point. As interesting as that film (“Hunger”) was, let’s hope it’s not a complete indication of his “style.” I can’t see a film about “Fela” produced in that similar manner.

  • Quentin Strum

    Cultural integrity is very important. It’ll only take the film to a whole other level.

  • Its true,one’s cultural nuance/material reality is tantamount to the proceedings,especially when delving into authentic ethnicity and accuracy, if i was in the director shoes, my first question would be to the would-be writer , how much western influence are he/she are willing to relinquish? for the benefit of african antiquity?