EXCLUSIVE: Lionsgate has acquired screen rights to Devil In The Grove: Thurgood Marshall, The Groveland Boys, And The Dawn Of A New America, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Gilbert King about the effort of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s legal team to save the lives of four black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Florida in 1949. Adam Cooper & Bill Collage will write the script. Allison Shearmur is producing. The project is high priority at Lionsgate where production president Erik Feig and production and development director Jeyun Choi are overseeing it.
Devil In The Grove will yield a great role for a fortyish African-American actor to play the iconic Marshall, in a case fought to the Supreme Court before he made history with Brown Vs. Board of Education, which finally eliminated segregation in public schools. The scribes are also planning a strong role of Mabel Norris Reese, a journalist who covered the case. Initially outraged by the rape charges, she wrote honest stories as the evidence made it clear the “victim” had invented the allegations.
The film has overtones of To Kill A Mockingbird, in a story emblematic of the racism present in the Deep South during the time when Jim Crow labor laws made possible places like the segregated Groveland, Florida. Empowered by cheap labor, that town became a thriving citrus empire, with a racist sheriff ruling with an iron hand. In 1949, a quartet of young black men called The Groveland Four were accused of rape by a 17-year-old girl. The Klan tore through Groveland, sending black men fleeing to the swamps as they burned homes, determined to find the four and lynch them. One was shot down, and the others beaten badly into confessing. Despite the powderkeg atmosphere, Groveland became an establishing ground for Marshall, who despite the danger and his vital status in the growing civil rights movement, got heavily involved after one of his NAACP associates was murdered by the Klan. Even though the evidence was flimsy, one of the men was sentenced to life and the other two were given death sentences. Marshall fought that all the way to the Supreme Court. When a new trial was ordered, the sheriff, McCall, shot both of the men as they were being transported. He claimed the handcuffed men attacked him, but the lone survivor said he simply blasted away. The survivor was eventually exonerated.
The writers, whose Moses script Exodus will be the next film that Ridley Scott will direct with Christian Bale starring at Fox, found the book in manuscript form, and they couldn’t get a rise out of the town. Then, just as it was being relegated to the remainder pile, Devil In The Grove shockingly won the Pulitzer and the author’s film agent, Sean Daily at Hotchkiss And Associates (he sold it for lit agent Farley Chase) told the scribes that there was interest. Some 18 months after they first shopped the book, they went to town on it again. “In a way, Thurgood Marshall seems a rightful companion to Moses and George Washington [their script on him, called The General, has Darren Aronofsky attached], because Marshall really was a founding father of a new America,” Cooper said. They feel it is in good hands with Lionsgate and with Shearmur, who has been a strong influence on book adaptations like The Hunger Games. Cooper & Collage are repped by WME and Jeff Frankel.