EXCLUSIVE: Lionsgate has commenced Highlander creator Gregory Widen to script Black Samurai, an action drama grounded in the historical tale of Yasuke, reputed to be the first black-skinned samurai to serve a warlord in Japan. Mike De Luca and Stephen L’Heureux are producing, and the film is a co-production between Solipsist Films and De Luca Productions.
Yasuke lived in the mid-1500s, and history on his origins and exactly how he came to become a sword for a warlord named Oda Nobunaga is a bit fuzzy. Widen said what is known is that he was the only known African to reach that rank in feudal Japan, and it is a strong point of entry for a period action film that can build a compelling action narrative around history. It’s not Widen’s first hack at swordplay fare. He hatched the mythology and co-wrote the 1986 film Highlander, about the ageless immortal Scottish swordsman. That spawned a series of films, and a syndicated series. Lionsgate has for the past several years been trying to find the handle on remake of the original film but hasn’t quite cracked it.
“[Black Samurai] is based on the true story of an African whose journey to Japan comes with conflicting background stories,” Widen said. “The one I’ve chosen is that he was a slave soldier after the fall of Abysinnian Bengal, a black kingdom run by Ethiopians. He was sold into slavery and found himself in the care of Alessandro Valignano, an Italian missionary. They formed a bond, and when there were complications in Rome, he was sent to Japan and took Yasuke with him. There he met Oda Nobunaga, who was interested in all Western things, and through a series of bizarre events, the Jesuit left Yasukie with the warlord.”
None of the Japanese had seen a black-skinned person before, and Widen said they initially tried to scrub him, believing the color would come off his skin. Yasuke, conflicted about the violence of his past when he got to Japan, embraced samurai culture and became a useful warrior for the warlord, Widen said. “He became a samurai warrior,” Widen said. “They presented him with a blade, and he went to work.”
Widen’s repped by Above the Line, Phoenix Organization and Echo Lake. L’Heureux produced Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and he’s producing with Jessica Chastain an adaptation of the Jimmy Palmiotti graphic novel Painkiller Jane, with Chastain playing the heroine. L’Heureux is partnered with De Luca on an adaptation of the vidgame franchise Metro 2033.