The Broadway musical Fela! received 11 Tony nominations this morning, and a Focus Features movie about the African musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti now officially has its leading man. Chiwetel Ejiofor is formally attached to play Fela in the film that will be directed by Steve McQueen, the British artist who made his helming debut on Hunger, the drama about the Irish hunger strike that starred Michael Fassbender.
When I revealed the project last year, Ejiofor seemed the obvious choice, but Focus Features wouldn’t confirm. Ejiofor sure has been taking it seriously on his end. In between his work on the upcoming Angelina Jolie-starrer Salt, he has been learning to play piano and saxophone to prepare for the role. I’m told he’s gotten quite good.
The film is separate from the Broadway musical. Focus has its own feature rights package that include Fela’s music, rights gathered by producers Lydia Pilcher and Leigh Blake. The role sounds like a real opportunity for Ejiofor to shine in a high profile film, after lead work in small films–Redbelt and Kinky Boots–and supporting work in studio films like Children of Men and Love Actually.
Fela, considered Africa’s answer to Bob Marley, is as famous for his Afrobeat musical style–a fusion of jazz, funk and West African drums–as he was for speaking out against government oppression in Nigeria. He was a larger than life figure, had 27 wives, and his outspoken nature proved costly when his house was raided and his 78-year old mother thrown to her death from a second-story window. He deposited the coffin on the steps of the Nigerian leader’s home.