Searchlight Pictures has acquired script rights to “The Defender,” starring Sterling K. Brown as the pioneering lawyer Scipio Africanus Jones, who risked his life and career to defend the Elaine Twelve — a group of 12 Black sharecroppers sentenced to death for allegedly being involved in the murder of a white man during the Elaine Massacre of 1919 in Arkansas.

George Tillman Jr. (“The Hate U Give”) is attached to direct, with 21 Laps’ Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen on board to produce. The three-time Emmy-winning actor will also produce the project under his Indian Meadows banner, founded in 2018 with the mission to “champion diversity through the development and production of entertaining, educational and inclusive projects.”

Penned by E. Nicholas Mariani, “The Defender” tells the true, yet little-known, story of the courageous attorney’s fight to defend eighty-seven men wrongfully accused in relation to the Elaine Massacre. Mariani’s script was a 2018 Black List selection, with the studio acquiring the rights to the project in a competitive situation. Ben Wilkinson, Searchlight Pictures’ VP of business affairs and legal counsel, negotiated the deal on behalf of the studio, along with WME and CAA on behalf of the filmmakers.

Miarani will executive produce the movie alongside Danielle Reardon, with Dantram Nguyen, Katie Goodson-Thomas and Richard Ruiz overseeing the project for Searchlight.

News of the role comes at the end of another busy year for Brown, who currently stars in NBC’s “This Is Us,” which will debut its sixth and final season in January. In the meantime, the actor recently wrapped production on the indie film “Honk for Jesus, Save your Soul,” which he is also producing, and the sci-fi film “Biosphere.” In 2016, Brown won an Emmy for his portrayal of prosecutor Christopher Darden in FX’s “American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson.” He’s since earned five consecutive Emmy nods for his work on “This Is Us” (with one win), plus additional nominations for his roles on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” In 2021, he picked up a third Emmy for narrating “Lincoln: Divided We Stand.” Brown’s film credits include Marvel’s Oscar-winning film “Black Panther,” “Waves” and “Frozen 2.”

Tillman Jr. most recently produced and directed the critically acclaimed adaptation of Angela Thomas’ seminal young adult novel “The Hate U Give” for Fox 2000 Pictures and “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” (which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival before being released by Lionsgate). He also directed “Men of Honor,” starring Robert De Niro, and the Notorious B.I.G. biopic “Notorious” for Fox Searchlight. He is currently in pre-production for the untitled George Foreman biopic, which is set to be released in March 2023 under Sony’s AFFIRM Films label.

Brown and Tillman Jr. are represented by CAA. Brown is also repped by JWS Entertainment, Jill Fritzo PR and Ziffren Brittenham.

Mariani was recently elected to the WGA board of directors and is currently penning the adaptation of David Fisher’s WWII drama “War Magician,” with Benedict Cumberbatch set to star and with Colin Trevorrow directing for Studiocanal. Mariani is represented by Verve and Ginsburg Daniels Kallis.

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George Tillman Jr. and E. Nicholas Mariani Everett Collection/Searchlight