What great book by a Black author should be brought to the screen next?
When we learned about the upcoming television series based on Octavia Butler's extraordinary 1979 novel Kindred, we decided to ask some of our favorite literary leaders which book by a Black writer they would most like to see adapted to the screen. In honor of Black History Month, here are their responses.
Carla Hayden, librarian of Congress
Virginia Hamilton was the first [Black] winner of the Newbery Medal and that's the Oscar for youth literature. Her first novel is called Zeely. It's a beautiful, evocative story about a young African American girl and her brother going down to their Uncle Ross' farm, and there's this mysterious woman, Zeely, who the young girl thinks is a Watusi queen. I immediately thought of Lupita Nyong'o, and for Julie Dash to direct, since the mood reminds me of Daughters of the Dust. Uncle Ross might not be glamorous enough for Idris Elba to do this, but ... we could ask.
Elizabeth Alexander, poet, essayist and president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
I want to see Toni Cade Bambara's classic 1971 collection of linked short stories Gorilla, My Love adapted for the screen. No one understands the range, power and beauty of Black talk better than Bambara, nor the fierce brilliance in the inner lives of young Black girls. Bambara called her work "straight-up fiction." The protagonist is a young girl named Hazel who lives Uptown in New York City, keenly observing the community of storytelling women, the dramas enacted in the theater of the street in a Black community filled with gangstas and schoolteachers, strivers and pretenders, dreamers and diviners. Many of the Black folks in this community have roots in North Carolina, and some of the stories are set there as well. Hazel as a sassy, smart, observant, amazing child becoming a woman is unforgettable. Bambara's ear for the brilliance of Black vernacular and the many registers in which Black people sing our songs is unmatched.
I want this to be directed by the one and only Ava DuVernay, who understands Black people in multigenerational community, urban Black people and their relationship to the rural South, Black political consciousness, female coming of age, and deep Black humor. She would launch the career of a girl to star as Hazel, as she did with Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time and with many of the cast in When They See Us. It's an ensemble piece and in no particular order I would love to see Colman Domingo, Delroy Lindo, Niecy Nash and Tessa Thompson. Let's make this movie now! And P.S. I want a cameo!
Todd Boyd, Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California
Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe. Miles Davis is one of the most profoundly significant cultural figures of the 20th century. His life as a jazz artist, style icon, trendsetter and creative genius is celebratory, controversial, inherently compelling and most deserving of the proper biopic treatment.
I consider myself, Dr. Todd Boyd aka Notorious Ph.D., to be the "dream" writer-director. I can select the "dream" cast once I'm hired to write and direct!
Spike Trotman, cartoonist and founder-owner of Iron Circus Comics
I would love to see Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy adapted for the big screen: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. I want Ava DuVernay to direct!
I've always been fascinated, conceptually, by the idea of the trilogy. So much of sci-fi is about conquest, or throwing off conquest; because being the conquered is just utterly unacceptable to imperialist sensibilities, so much of our fiction still approaches storytelling from that angle. Also, if the last few years have taught me anything, it's that people will fight tooth and nail against what they need to survive. I've thought of Octavia's books a whole lot since 2016; I no longer question that the world is full of people who would rather blow themselves up than change for the better.
Ashley M. Jones, poet laureate of the state of Alabama
It would be thrilling to see Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon adapted for film — such dynamic characters, such a range of palpable emotions, and what an ending! There's also a newer book called Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which occupied my mind for most of 2019. I still think about this book often — it's a collection of short stories which are, perhaps, speculative in nature but also very rooted in the reality of race and identity in America today. To see these stories, particularly "The Finklestein 5" and "Zimmer Land" put on screen would be terrifying, powerful and very necessary in this day and age.
These books are rooted squarely in truth — they tell a real story about America, and that is always the thing I want shown to a larger audience. In a time when people are actively seeking the erasure of real history, we need to make sure we keep the truth flowing in every way we possibly can. Movies reach a lot of people — maybe more than books, I'm sad to say. Sometimes seeing the thing is more powerful.
I would be very happy to see Zendaya directing and/or starring in any of these adaptations. She's such a multifaceted artist and I think she could bring something incredible to these films on either side of the camera.
Terril Fields, co-founder of media company and lifestyle brand Blerd
Honestly, there is a bit of recency bias as it was the last book I read, but I did really enjoy Starlion: Thieves of the Red Night by Leon Langford. It was the first piece of literature that we sold on our website and it reminded me a lot of X-Men and My Hero Academia, which are both properties I am a fan of. I also like to see independent publishers and creators get shine. I think Ryan Coogler would make the world come alive, but that is shooting high!
Claudette McLinn, executive director of Center for the Study of Multicultural Children's Literature
I would love to see the book, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson adapted to screen. Brown Girl Dreaming is the story about the author's childhood during the 1960s and 1970s and how she navigated between her two worlds, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Greenville, S.C. Written in verse, I picked this story because of its powerful imagery, well-developed characters and moving writing. Woodson has won every major award, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award and the MacArthur Fellowship. This book has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on readers and the literary community. My dream director is Ava DuVernay.
Reggie Bailey, literary curator of Reggiereads on Instagram and @booksarepopculture
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler was way ahead of its time. Prescient to a scary degree. Butler even predicted Hurricane Katrina in that novel! There is a moment where [the character] Lauren Olamina tells us about a hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast — not to mention corporate power, a drug epidemic, and stay at home regulations (although they weren't quite staying in because of a COVID-19 style thing).
Kiki Layne could star in this film as Lauren Olamina. I believe that she has proven herself to be perfect for this role, especially the empathy portion, through If Beale Street Could Talk. She has even shown leadership in her role that she played in Coming 2 America. Ryan Coogler could direct because he has experience with science fiction with Marvel, and the novel takes place in California (not the Bay, but still). So it'll be somewhat familiar territory for him.
Raquel Willis, former executive editor of Out magazine and transgender activist
I'd love to see Octavia Butler's Patternist series brought to the screen. I love her world-building and how she made a beautiful epic across multiple volumes that played with divine gender forces. I'd also love to see Freshwater or Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. I think they are one of the most powerful and interesting writers of today and they will be etched into literary history as a titan.
Melissa Watkins, speculative fiction writer and teacher and creator of the website Equal Opportunity Reader
This is a really hard question because there are so many good books that would make great movies. I'd have to say it's a tie between Jordan Ifueko's Redemptor and indie author Antoine Bandele's The Gatekeeper's Staff. I picked these two because they're both magical coming-of-age stories that center Black teenagers finding themselves and their own power. There's a real dearth of Black coming-of-age stories that aren't built around the trauma of racism in some way, and neither of these are. They're also both really fun, expansive stories with lots of culture, magic and mystery that would be a lot of fun to see on the big or small screen.
For both books that I mentioned, part of the fun of seeing them on the big screen would be watching some young unknown Black talent get some shine playing the hero in an epic story their first time out of the gate. But as far as a director? I'd love to see Ava DuVernay get her hands on a *good* magical coming-of-age story, given the magic she's worked with other stories featuring young people.
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