Since INTERVIEW magazine has published an article on who should be cast in the AMERICANAH movie, I felt I should put my two cents in at this absurdly early stage in the discussion.
How early is it? The announcement that Chimamanda Nigozi Adichie's award-winning 3rd book has been optioned by Lupita Nyong'o was made on May 30th, 2014. Less than a month, ago. Nyong'o won her Oscar on March 2nd, less than three months, ago. Movies can take up to 10 years to develop, so, yes, it is early to talk about casting in AMERICANAH.
However, INTERVIEW magazine is a prestigious entertainment publication, and movies that have astronomical budgets and star-studded casts would kill to have as much ink devoted to them as has AMERICANAH at this signing stage.
This is because Lupita Nyong'o (who didn't even make the cut on Barbara Walters' 10 Most Fascinating People of 2013 list) is easily the most fascinating person in Hollywood, right now. She is an enigma, a mad success and an African abroad.
If AMERICANAH is a success, Nyong'o could become the Orson Welles of her generation. Why? Because Nyong'o is, like Welles, a writer, director, producer and performer. Lupita Nyong'o is only 31 years old! Orson Welles was 26 when he co-wrote, directed and starred in CITIZEN KANE.
CITIZEN KANE (1941) is still considered one of the greatest movies ever made. It's working title, while in production, was THE AMERICAN. AMERICANAH is not about The American Experience, as CITIZEN KANE was; AMERICANAH is about the African Immigrant Experience in America and concludes with its protagonist, Ifemelu (to be played by Nyong'o) returning to live out her life in the African homeland after having achieved wild success in America.
Chimamanda Nigozi Adichie is a 36 year old female African novelist. William Randolph Hearst; on whom CITIZEN KANE is based; was 78 years old when Orson Welles made his movie. Welles was projecting himself onto Hearst and commenting on the Dark Underside of The American Dream with CITIZEN KANE. Nyong'o has an older sister the age of Adichie: AMERICANAH is a direct reflection of her life experience and it is her declaration that she is, at heart, an African simply traveling through America.
In American fiction (indeed, in World Fiction), young novelists often craft a bildungsroman to define themselves to the larger society. Books like TOM JONES or CATCHER IN THE RYE, books which capture the zeitgeist and are cherished by a generation, that are studied like scripture by that generation, but which often prove irrelevant to the next generation. Can you imagine the millennials finding Truth in CATCHER IN THE RYE?
For an expatriate African woman, how could AMERICANAH be anything less than a godsend? Ifemelu is a contemporary character whose experiences reflect Nyong'o's own to an astonishing degree, of course she would want to see this made into a movie!
But, unlike most starlets in Hollywood, Nyong'o has the ability to make her wishes into reality.
Thank goodness that Nyong'o has not gone the way of Alicia Silverstone who, after the success of CLUELESS (1995), used her multi-million studio production deal to make EXCESS BAGGAGE (1997), where she played a spoiled brat who stages her own kidnapping to get her father's attention.
AMERICANAH will most likely be made in a timely fashion, when Nyong'o is still of the proper age to play Ifemelu and while audiences will still be excited to see her headline a movie. Not since Whitney Houston in THE BODYGUARD (1994) has a black actress had a better connection to her part than does Nyong'o in AMERICANAH.
However, let us remember that the screenplay for THE BODYGUARD was written in 1972 with Steve McQueen in mind for the lead. Steve McQueen died in 1980, and Kevin Costner ended up as the lead. Coincidentally, a different Steve McQueen directed Nyong'o to her Oscar win in 2013. It took 24 years for THE BODYGUARD to be produced as a movie. With the momentum Nyong'o has gained in Hollywood, it is possible that she can get AMERICANAH made in 24 months.
That's why INTERVIEW magazine ran an article on casting for AMERICANAH: this film will be made, and very quickly, at that.
But, will anybody see AMERICANAH? An earlier adaptation of a Chimamanda Nigozi Adichie novel; HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (2006); was released in 2013, with Chiwetel Ejiogor (the lead in Nyong'o's 12 YEARS A SLAVE) and Thandie Newton starring, and grossed less than $37,000 dollars.
Getting a movie made and having it find an audience are two entirely different things. Nyong'o's producing partner, Brad Pitt, produced and starred in KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012), which grossed less than $16,000 dollars. Brad Pitt also produced and starred in WORLD WAR Z (2013), which grossed over $200 million dollars. 12 YEARS A SLAVE grossed over $57 million dollars and won 3 Oscars.
AMERICANAH should be a film that will make $100 million dollars, but the casting is crucial to its commercial prospects. Just as 12 YEARS A SLAVE was carefully marketed and rolled out slowly into theaters, AMERICANAH does not have a "shiny-happy hook" to enjoy a huge opening weekend and stay in "first-run" theaters for 3 solid months.
With the proper cast, however, AMERICANAH might actually make THE BUTLER money. THE BUTLER made more than $115 million dollars, folks. Part of the reason is because it had five Oscar winners in the cast, which was no accident.
AMERICANAH needs to be just as sophisticated in its casting (yes: THE BUTLER, no: EXCESS BAGGAGE), to prevent it from seeming to simply be a coronation of Nyong'o. Orson Welles learned that lesson the hard way: William Randolph Hearst campaigned against CITIZEN KANE successfully and Welles was effectively blacklisted in Hollywood for the rest of his long career. Was Welles, therefore, an American Tragedy? Nah, it's much simpler than that: America builds up its celebrities just to tear them down, that's the American Way!
If Nyong'o continues to be generous with her celebrity, she can avoid the harshest elements of her inevitable backlash. The easiest way for America to put Nyong'o in her place is to simply avoid seeing AMERICANAH in the theaters. With the right cast, AMERICANAH can be a must-see movie and have a solid opening weekend!
KEKE PALMER as the younger Ifemelu. PALMER had a brilliant early career, debuting in THE WOOL CAP (2005) opposite William H. Macy, then appearing in MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION (2006) and starring in AKEELAH AND THE BEE (2006). She now is the youngest host over of her own talk show, produced by Tyler Perry. Does she look like Nyong'o? Nope, but nobody else, does, either. What PALMER has is sass and skill, which reflects Nyong'o's strengths!
JADEN SMITH as the younger Obinze. SMITH's debut in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006) got him an Oscar nomination, so he's got chops to burn. SMITH is 5 years younger than Palmer, but he's taller than she is, and has been a working actor for just as long, so there! (And he knows kung fu!)
WILL SMITH as the present day Obinze. Smith also got an Oscar nomination for THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006) and is one of the top box office draws in the world, as well as being JADEN's dad. SMITH has shown that he can play homeless as well as down & out, which is the arc that Obinze experiences in AMERICANAH. SMITH has not made his money as a romantic lead, but the 15 year age difference he has with Nyong'o won't matter to the audience: SMITH is The Man!
BRADLEY COOPER as Blaine. Cooper has 2 Oscar nominations under his belt, for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), and actively produces his own movies. COOPER is not letting THE HANGOVER turn him into a hermit: he's here to do The Hustle! And COOPER's wheelhouse is playing the romantic lead.
PATINA MILLER as Shan. MILLER won the Tony for Lead Actress in 2013 as Leading Partner in the revival of PIPPIN, the part created by Ben Vereen in 1972. Ben Vereen also played Fiddler in the 1977 miniseries ROOTS, so the Leading Partner role lends itself to swagger, which is exactly what Nyong'o needs to play against. Shan is the Sister Act from hell and could be the kind of breakout role that MILLER would benefit from: Nyong'o would be wise to nurture this Broadway phenomenon for AMERICANAH.
ANGELA BASSETT as Aunty Uju. After her Oscar nominated turn in WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? (1993), BASSETT has kept on working but has not struck cinematic gold, since. Aunty Uju could prove the kind of supporting part that could bring Bassett back into the Big Leagues where she belongs.
OPRAH WINFREY as Aisha. THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) showed what WINFREY could do, but her day job has mostly kept her off of the Big Screen. WINFREY has not sported an afro since she was a newscaster on the streets of Chicago, so she can channel where Aisha is coming from and bring the hard-fought wisdom that Aisha represents. And who doesn't want to see WINFREY and Nyong'o share the screen for a batch of scenes? That's movie magic!
I hope I spelled everyone's name, right! :D