Beyond 12 Years a Slave: 8 More Books We Want to See on the Big Screen

The Darkest Child, by Delores Phillips; My Soul to Keep, by Tananarive Due; Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler

Solomon Northup’s harrowing story, 12 Years a Slave, was deserving of the silver screen and the accolades that followed. But there are books by black authors, like Tananarive Due, Octavia Butler and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, that tell other stories, beyond the whips and chains of slavery, that Hollywood should consider bringing to the big screen.

1. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass


The lauded abolitionist was blatantly robbed of his cameo in Lincoln and deserves his own movie that reinserts him into history as a major influence on Abraham Lincoln’s conscience. The formula for a box office smash: 1) Cast Samuel Jackson in a wig; 2) Open the film on the anniversary of the day Douglass escaped from slavery (Sept. 3); and 3) Though this may be far-fetched, give the film artistic license to feature a scene in which the erudite abolitionist gives the middle finger to revisionist historians and to those who labeled him three-fifths of a man. We know Sam Jackson can handle that.

2. American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World, by Anita Reynolds

Reynolds’ life was a grand adventure, placing her shoulder to shoulder with some of the most iconic figures in history—Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin and W.E.B. Du Bois, to name a few. The movie’s success would depend on depicting Reynolds’ grand international lifestyle—think Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! or The Great Gatsby—without abandoning the essence of what it was like to want to be any color but black. Because of her talent and success in portraying ambiguously ethnic characters and her fun-loving spirit, Rashida Jones is my pick for the lead.

3. Wild Seed, by Octavia E. Butler


Erykah Badu’s video for the song “Didn’t Cha Know” provides a motif for what a scene in Butler’s Afro-futuristic tale of Anyanwu and Doro could be. This delicious sci-fi tale from the Patternmaster series encompasses slavery but allows for fantasy, with characters shifting shapes and traveling through centuries of time. The treatment would need to be epic—on the same level as Star Wars. I would ask the beloved Tyler Perry to sit this one out.

4. My Soul to Keep, by Tananarive Due


If Northup wanted to live, not just survive, Due has the answer: immortality. Her book of African immortals may make it to the big screen. According to the author’s blog, the screenplay she wrote with her husband was completed last year and is being shopped around to Hollywood studios.

5. Shackling Water, by Adam Mansbach


Mansbach’s book is the coming-of-age story of Latif James-Peterson, a young saxophone prodigy who comes to New York City to find his idol. On the big screen, the lead could be an up-and-coming young black male actor or an ageless actor-musician type, like Mos Def. The director should be John Singleton, who has presented respectful and honest depictions of troubled, black male characters. Given the success of the critically acclaimed Mo’ Better Blues and Bird, the film adaptation of Shackling Water could be another great movie with a brilliant soundtrack fusing jazz, hip-hop and spoken word. 

6. Dust on the Shoes, by Patricia Barbee


This book, which takes place in south Georgia, captures the spirit of all the sordid tales that get told while the kids are slumbering. There’s enough family drama in this novel to hold any movie audience captive for at least 90 minutes. Halle Berry is just the right actress to bring the main character, Hildree, to life on the big screen.

7. The Darkest Child, by Delores Phillips


The book explores the difficult topic of colorism, and a film version would go down a different avenue from where movies like Beloved, Precious and The Color Purple have gone on the subject. Yet this film’s success could use the hands of Oprah and Perry (sans Madea). Both stars have embraced the complex issue both truthfully and carefully in their projects.

8. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Selected as one of the “10 Best Books of 2013” by the New York Times, Adichie’s novel tells the story of Ifemelu, a confident and talented young Nigerian coming to America to study. This novel as a film would help continue the exploration and analysis of the chasm that exists between African Americans and Africans, specifically Nigerians. Ifemelu’s clash with American culture is a prime example of the rift between the two cultures that was depicted in Raisin in the Sun and to comedic effect in Coming to America. (The film adaptation of Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun will be released later this year. Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Northup in 12 Years a Slave, have been cast as the leads.)

Mikol L. Clarke is a media professional who resides in New York City with his wife and son. He enjoys traveling and singing jazz and gospel music. Follow him on Twitter.

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