Don Cheadle and Dennis Haysbert are among a string of Hollywood A-listers tipped to take up lead roles in an upcoming film about how Idi Amin persecuted Christians during his eight-year reign as Ugandan president.
Co-written and directed by American filmmaker Dan Fabrizio, A Distant Grief is adapted from a 1979 book of the same name by the retired Ugandan politician and clergyman Rev Dr Kefa Sempangi, and is expected to begin shooting in Uganda this June.
Sources privy to the project have exclusively told us that the two Hollywood stars have already confirmed their availability although they are still in talks with the film’s producers about payment.
“They know about the movie but they are waiting for the right funds (payments) before they can approve,” Ugandan actress Eleanor Nabwiso Nansibo, the project’s fixer and daughter to Rev Sempangi, told us minus disclosing how much either actor is demanding.
Written in a firsthand account, Sempangi’s book tells of shocking details of how thousands of Christians and opposition politicians were murdered on Amin’s orders between 1971 and 1979.
As a scholar and politician in the previous regime, Rev Sempangi never struck a chord with Amin, an unlearned eccentric who seized power through the brute force of the gun.
But it is Sempangi’s status as pioneer of the Pentecostal church movement that mostly rubbed Amin’s Islamic fanaticism the wrong way, driving the dictator to secretly hunt down and murder those who perceived Jesus Christ as their savior, the book alleges.
In 1973, after the murder of his close friend and fellow born again, Sempangi fled to exile in Netherlands and later USA from where he penned his book and rallied against Amin’s regime.
The book itself, however much fascinating, is not that much of a powerhouse in the literal world, commanding a few thousand sales online, mainly in Europe and America. It nonetheless caught the attention of Fabrizio, who now intends to produce it into a film under his Dogwood Productions company.
It all began in 1990 when the American filmmaker and scholar was preparing for his first trip to Uganda. A friend recommended that he first read the book so as to get a clear insight of the country he was headed to.
“I did and the book changed my life in many ways. It opened my eyes to the pure evil of Idi Amin, but more importantly to the fact that his darkness could not extinguish the light of the Ugandan people,” Fabrizio says, adding he instantly knew the story would make a great movie.
He later got in touch with Sempangi and in 2010; the duo co-wrote the screenplay that has now attracted some of the biggest names in world cinema. But it has not been easy kick-starting the project.
On the film’s website, Fabrizio reveals many Hollywood producers shut their doors on him because his project “contains a predominant black cast and doesn’t fit into the formula of many movies coming out of Hollywood.”
He has hence had to resort to crowdfunding, where he has so far miraculously managed to raise over $100,000 (about Shs250m) which he hopes will entice other sponsors on board. Fabrizio has also released the film’s pre-trailer which he hopes to use as an additional marketing tool.
The film’s total production budget, we have been told, is estimated at a whopping $5m (about Shs12.5bn) out of which $4m (Shs10bn) will come from America and the remaining $1m from Ugandan sponsors.
But convincing Ugandans to inject Shs2.5bn in a film project is proving to be an almost impossible task for Sempangi and team. They are nonetheless hopeful the clout of Hollywood stars, coupled with the project’s idiosyncrasy will draw sponsors.
Indeed, considering the magnitude of Cheadle and Haysbert’s fame, it may be easy hooking some cash cows itching to have a credit on a world-class movie. Both stars have previously portrayed great African figures with Cheadle even scooping an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Rwandan genocide hero Paul Rusesabagina in the hit 2004 historical drama Hotel Rwanda.
Burly Haysbert on the other hand played Nelson Mandela in the 2007 biopic Goodbye Bafana about an unlikely friendship between the fallen South African statesman and his white prison guard. He is however better known for his role as the US President on the iconic 24 series.
If indeed the pair gets on board, Cheadle is expected to become Sempangi while his compatriot will play the former MP’s friend, one Jolly Joe Kiwanuka, who was lured out of exile in Kenya with a promise to become an ambassador only to be murdered by Amin. His body has never been found.
Amin’s murderous regime, together with his larger-than-life persona, has already inspired a number of books and films, most notably The Last King of Scotland, for which American actor Forest Whitaker won an Oscar.
There will be auditions in Kampala this May to fill up hundreds of supporting and extra roles ahead of the film’s shooting in June but it remains to be seen whether A Distant Grief will match it’s predecessors’ acclaim.