EXCLUSIVE: Ben Affleck will direct King Leopold’s Ghost, a fact-based drama about the plunder of the Congo by Belgium’s King Leopold II in the late 1800s. One Community, which co-financed Just Mercy, is financing development with an option to co-finance the film. Farhad Safinia (Apocalypto) is writing the script. Affleck is producing through his Pearl Street Films banner alongside Martin Scorsese and Emma Koskoff-Tillinger through his Sikelia Productions banner. Harry and Gina Belafonte are also producing, with Pearl Street’s Madison Ainley exec producing.
Safinia is basing his script on the Adam Hochschild book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. The film covers an atrocious piece of history that is every bit as bad as the subtitle infers. Set at a moment when European countries were racing to find ways to carve up the natural resources of Africa, Leopold became the world’s richest man with billions stashed in secret bank accounts by gaining private ownership of the Congo Free State, and inserted a mercenary army to cruelly plunder rubber and ivory. He forced the locals to harvest it. Those who refused were dismembered or worse, and the book estimates that as many as 8 million were killed in this ruthless pursuit. The book was previously the basis for a 2006 documentary.
This film is an account of the Congolese who defied Leopold II and fought back. Their heroic plight sparked a daring and unlikely alliance between a black American missionary, an English investigative journalist and an Irish spy that shone a light on the horrors and gave birth to the first human rights movement. Once photographs were made public, Leopold’s charade of spreading Christianity in the heart of darkness was exposed as a greedy ruse, and the king was assailed by the likes of Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad, whose disgust with Leopold’s “civilizing mission” led to writing Heart of Darkness.
Affleck last directed the Dennis Lehane novel adaptation Live By Night and before that the Best Picture winner Argo, and The Town. The film is borne out of his personal passion for the region. Affleck founded Eastern Congo Initiative, an advocacy and grant-making initiative focused on working with and for the people of eastern Congo to spur economic and social development and increase the quantity of public and private funding to support those goals. He has worked on King Leopold’s Ghost for several years. At one point, the project was contemplated as a limited series but now the filmmakers feel it has found its form as a movie.
One Community is a co-financier on the Destin Daniel Cretton-directed Warner Bros drama Just Mercy, which stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. Scott Budnick started One Community as a film, TV and new media company that uses the power of commercial storytelling to enable positive global social change.
Aside from co-writing and co-producing Apocalypto with director Mel Gibson, Safinia created, exec produced and was show runner on the Kelsey Grammer drama Boss.
It is unclear which film Affleck next directs, as he is separately developing a drama about the $24 million swindle of the McDonald’s Monopoly Game, based on the Jeff Maysh article published by The Daily Beast, and the WWII drama Ghost Army that Affleck is producing with Andrew Lazar. Affleck is currently shooting the Adrian Lyne-directed drama Deep Water with Ana de Armas, and recently wrapped the Gavin O’Connor-directed The Way Back, and the Dee Rees-directed The Last Thing He Wanted.
Affleck is repped by WME and Ziffren Brittenham, Safinia by Brian Sher and Morris Yorn, and Scorsese by WME, LBI and Hansen Jacobson.