SA-born Liesl Tommy to direct a major Aretha Franklin biopic

27 January 2019 - 00:00 By SHAIN GERMANER
Liesl Tommy will also direct Lupita Nyong'o in the Trevor Noah biopic 'Born a Crime'.
Liesl Tommy will also direct Lupita Nyong'o in the Trevor Noah biopic 'Born a Crime'.
Image: Walter McBride/WireImage

There was a time when SA-born Liesl Tommy, left, had to bang very hard on doors in Hollywood. But now, more often than not, it's her door being knocked on.

Tommy - the first black woman to get a Tony Award nomination for best direction of a play - was earlier this month named as the director of a new biopic on US songstress Aretha Franklin, set to star Jennifer Hudson.

This is less than a year after being chosen to direct the film adaptation of Trevor Noah's autobiography, Born a Crime.

"I'm still in shock," Tommy told the Sunday Times. "It was such a long and extremely competitive process. I'm compartmentalising the reality of what has happened and the amount of work that still has to happen."

Tommy left SA with her parents when she was 15 years old, at the height of apartheid. But she has no problem being "claimed" by South Africans as a success story. On social media, South African users reacted wildly to the announcements of her directing the movies.

"I feel very proud to be claimed as South African. A large part of my identity is being South African. I would never give up my passport," she said.

Tommy was tight-lipped about the Noah movie, which is still in the writing and research phase, but confirmed that a South African screenwriter has been appointed.

Of Noah she says: "He is an extremely generous human being in the way he's supported us and the access he's given us."

Tommy and the writer have had "incredible" meetings with Noah. She said his story is one she feels is close to her own.

Trevor really trusts us. He doesn't want to tell us what [the film] should be
Director Liesl Tommy on 'Born a Crime'

"He has so many stories outside of the book, so we want to have the book extended in the film version," said Tommy.

"Trevor really trusts us. He doesn't want to tell us what [the film] should be. We are the ones who've been chosen to write and direct and he trusts us to do our portion of the work."

Tommy has spent years working her way through the theatre, television and film industry, acknowledging that immigrant women of colour rarely get the opportunities she's been afforded in Hollywood.

"We're in a difficult time here [in the US]. Being a black woman, an immigrant, the status quo is not friendly to me," she said.

Among her many accolades are adapting the Disney hit Frozen into a theatrical production with a massive $28m (R385m) budget. She has also directed episodes of Insecure, The Walking Dead and Queen Sugar.

Tommy studied acting in London and went on to complete a programme through the Trinity Repertory Company in the US. Years later she cemented herself as one of the most sought-after theatre directors in New York, culminating in her nomination as best director for her adaption of the Broadway hit Eclipsed in 2016.

The play, depicting women kidnapped by Liberian rebels trying to depose then-president Charles Taylor, starred Lupita Nyong'o, who will play Noah's mother in Born a Crime.

Tommy still visits Cape Town, usually around the festive season. When she's away, "I feel off, like there's a hole inside. I miss my family, friends, the food, Table Mountain. I think it's a common immigrant experience, yearning for something more."