NEW YORK — It took Ralph Ellison four decades to pen “Juneteenth,” the follow-up to his classic novel “Invisible Man,” but it took just two months for it to shape up into an impressive film package.
Quincy Jones and actor Morgan Freeman have attached themselves to produce a film based on the unfinished novel, a version of which will be published by Random House next week.
Freeman is also lined up to star in the film, which playwright David Mamet is in talks to adapt and direct.
The William Morris Agency, which reps Jones and Freeman as producers on the project, as well as Ellison’s estate, has already brought the project to at least one studio and will be shopping the package to several additional studios within the coming days, according to sources outside the agency. A spokesman for William Morris declined comment.
Race in 20th century
Ellison intended “Juneteenth” to be a multicharacter, multifarious epic about race in the 20th century. To form the current version of the book, John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor, extracted what he considered to be the most focused and self-contained narrative within the sprawling 2,000- plus page manuscript.
It tells the story of Bliss, the son of a black man and white woman. When his father is lynched by a white mob, his mother gives Bliss to his father’s brother, the Rev. Alonzo Hickman, to raise inside the Baptist church.
Many years later, when a woman claiming to be his mother surfaces during a Juneteenth celebration of slave emancipation, Bliss transforms into a hate-filled politician named Sunraider, who uses race-baiting rants to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Freeman is set
While Freeman will play the big-hearted Rev. Hickman, the casting of Bliss/Sunraider could prove to be tricky: Ellison never states whether the character is black or white, and his racial identity is a central theme of the novel.
Jones’ involvement in the project stems from his friendship with Ellison, whom the musician-turned-producer approached 10 years ago about bringing “Invisible Man” to screen.
While the late Ellison, a former jazz musician himself, hit it off with Jones, he felt that his seminal novel wouldn’t translate well to screen.
His estate had no such reservations about “Juneteenth,” however, and sent the manuscript to Quincy Jones Media Group Inc.
Jones and production partner Joel Simon immediately agreed to produce the project, and two weeks later, Mamet was sent galleys of the novel. According to sources close to the project, while nothing is signed, Mamet has made a handshake agreement with Jones to write and direct the project.
Mamet is repped Howard Rosenstone at Rosenstone-Wender. Rosenstone did not return calls late Tuesday.