Casting the Octavia Butler movie of our speculative, afrofuturist, sci-fi dreams

    The Black Tribbles set aside April 2015 to honor the life and legacy of noted science fiction author Octavia Butler. Beginning in 1976 with “Patternmaster,” the first of the “Patternist” series, and concluding in 2005 with the stand-alone vampire study “Fledgling,” Ms. Butler blazed a trail through the genre rarely seen by any author, male or female. She won several Hugo and Nebula awards while using the lens of speculative fiction to magnify issues of race, gender and social concerns. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz says that Octavia Butler, in his eyes, wrote “nine perfect novels,” including literary classics “Parable of the Sower” and “Kindred.”

    Ms. Butler passed away suddenly in 2006 without seeing her work adapted for the multimedia universe that surrounds us now, but the social justice movements of today and the rise of Afrofuturism from a sub-genre to a culture of progression have stirred hope that the day will soon come when her name will be scrolled in a movie theater or on a television screen before millions of her fans.

    We asked Dr. Li Sumpter of MythMedia Studios and Afrofuturist radio personality DJ Aura of Places & Spaces to join us — Kennedy Allen, Randy Green, and myself — in speculating about what the speculative fiction of Ms. Butler’s more accessible works might look like in the bright lights of Hollywood.

    Kennedy Allen: I think Fledgling would be a fantastic mini-series, because it’s complex enough that it can be fleshed out. It has a definitive button, so you don’t need any sequels. When it’s done, it’s done.

    But there’s also a legitimate argument that work like this should remain literature so that the person who is experiencing it can interpret it in his or her own way. That way the director’s interpretation, the producer’s interpretation, the actors’, the lighting director’s interpretation doesn’t create the story for them. My vision of “Lilith’s Brood” is probably completely different than somebody else’s vision. That’s a freedom that literature gives you.

    Li Sumpter: Didn’t that happen with “Star Wars”? Weren’t different people able to recreate and manipulate different characters and storylines?

    Len Webb: They took the world created by the movie then moved it into literature. But it was a movie first.

    Kennedy: Plus, George Lucas is still around to work as a consultant, to answer any questions or be used as a frame of reference. He’s still here. Octavia is not being represented. And if it’s a family member or whoever, it may be in control of her estate. They may not feel comfortable having an artistic say-so as to whether or not something is produced in a certain way, because they didn’t create it.

    Randy Green: Who do we trust enough to do that? As much as Octavia’s work means to an entire segment of the population, is there somebody that that segment trusts enough to do it so that it doesn’t feel bastardized? How mad would you get if they made an Octavia Butler movie starring Scarlet Johansson?

    DJ Aura: I’d have a stroke.

    Len: They do “Lilith’s Brood” [as a movie]? Who’s your lead? Who do you cast?

    Kennedy: She would have to be brown skin. The character is 26, so it’d have to be somebody in their mid- to late-twenties, who is cultured enough to have a presence …

    DJ Aura: What about Lupita [Nyong’o, winner of the Academy Award for best supporting actress in “12 years A Slave”]?

    Randy: She can be in anything. [growl]

    DJ Aura: Lilith’s character was a big woman. She was maybe 5’11”.

    Kennedy: That would force Hollywood to cast outside the core group of “blactors” that are working right now.

    Len: Most wouldn’t fit that height requirement, true.

    DJ Aura: What about the writer from “Saturday Night Live” who’s going to be in the new “Ghostbusters”?

    Li: Leslie Jones.

    Kennedy: I would love for Leslie Jones to be more than what she’s shown me thus far.

    DJ Aura: You have to give her the chance.

    Len: Supposed you hear that Leslie Jones was cast in Lilith’s Brood. Would you be fine with it?

    Kennedy: I would be speculative.

    DJ Aura: Would you at least go see the movie?

    Kennedy: I don’t know. I can’t say yes. I can’t say no.

    Li: I’m thinking about “Parable of the Sower.” What about the women of “The Walking Dead”? Michonne [Danai Gurira] and Sasha [Sonequa Martin-Green] are both kick-ass.

    Len: I could see Sasha in that role.

    DJ Aura: The main character of “Parable,” Lauren, was also a big girl. That’s one of the things I like about Octavia Butler, because she was also tall. She makes a lot of her leads very tall, powerful.

    Li: All those things can be changed, because when you think about some of the liberties taken with “The Walking Dead’ [albeit a graphic novel but still literature] with Darryl not being a character of the book, you have to also think about the reader and their perspective and their own mind’s eye. When I read “Parable,” maybe I missed the descriptive details of the character. When I think of the character, I don’t see her as a big woman.

    DJ Aura: But she’s able to disguise herself as a man. She describes herself as being 5’7″, 5’8″; she describes herself as being broad as well as tall.

    Li: Well, I’m 5’9″. I could probably disguise myself as a man if I tried.

    Len: While those aspects should play a part in the casting when developing the adaptation for television or the movies, do you lose the story if that gets changed?

    Kennedy: It’s a part of the character. In “Wild Seed,” the character Anyanwu is described as diminutive. She’s impish. She’s elfin in appearance. Petite. Her presence was larger than her physical scale. Octavia wrote certain roles to be certain ways and it was intricate as far as the character itself. So I feel if a character is written to be a larger person and it influences the choices that they make then it should be cast accordingly.

    Li: The one thing I’ll say about that is the magic of Octavia’s work is that the reader puts themselves in her world and those characters’ perspective. So for me, reading “Parable” in ’97, I put myself in the protagonist’s shoes. I think that is a powerful element that these stories carry — the ability to identify and put you into that world. That means its almost like gaming where you become the first person shooter walking through that world wearing an avatar but with your own sensibilities. Memory being selective, I didn’t remember the stature of Lauren; I kind of saw her as looking like me.

    Len: If Octavia Butler’s fan base found that her work was being adapted in a way that is true to the story and its themes, I think they might forgo some minute details regarding physicality [race and gender being the exception] for the sake of getting the story right.

    DJ Aura: I think people would be open to it but I’m a stickler for the characters as far as how they’re described. For example, “Parable of the Sower,” I would support and be interested in the movie, but if Kerry Washington were playing the lead, I’d give it the side-eye.

    Kennedy: Getting back to casting for “Fledgling,” I think Quvenzhané Wallis would be perfect. She’s already shown such depth and range in her limited career.

    Li: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was amazing.

    Len: And she needs a bounce back from “Annie.”

    Kennedy: And if Leslie Jones doesn’t want to do “Lilith’s Brood,” I am totally and completely available.

    Len: I knew you had your headshot in your back pocket.

    Each month, Philadelphia’s prolific podcasters, the Black Tribbles (winners of the 2014 Streaming Project of the Year award), visit Speak Easy with special reports on everything sci-fi, comic books, movies, video games, cartoons, and other stuff that every nerd needs to know.

    Subscribe to the Black Tribbles’ new podcast, Tribble Nation, on iTunes and Pod-o-matic.

    Tribble Nation is a new monthly podcast focusing on the geek in every color imaginable, from scientist to author, from comic book artist to comic book collector. Each episode features an interview with a special guest and a review of current topics within his or her field of geek interest.

    The Black Tribbles are: Jason Richardson, aka Spider-Tribble; Len Webb, aka BatTribble; Kennedy Allen, aka Storm Tribble; Erik Darden, aka Master Tribble; and Randy Green, aka Super Tribble.


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