Emma Goes Hip-Hop

Jane Austen goes hip-hop. At least that’s the plan. Last week, Screen Gems, a Sony Pictures specialty film unit, announced plans to make a hip-hop musical version of Austen’s classic 19th century comic novel Emma. Screen Gems has released such successful black-oriented films as This Christmas, Stomp The Yard,The Brothers, and Two Can Play That Game.

“I saw the music video by Malcolm Jones for the song Lip Gloss by Lil Mama and loved it,” says Clint Culpepper, Screen Gems president, who had the idea for a musical version of Emma months before seeing the video. “[It] triggered my Emma thoughts. I just went crazy for it,” says Culpepper of the bubblegum-pop song and video.

This isn’t Emma’s first trip to the big screen in a contemporary setting. The 1995 Amy Heckerling comedy Clueless is loosely based on the novel and is set in a Beverly Hills high school. The film, starring Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, and Donald Faison, grossed $77 million worldwide. Miramax’s period version of Emma, released in 1996 starring Gwyneth Paltrow, made $31 million on a modest $6 million budget.

African American versions of literary or stage classics have found their way to the big screen in the past. In 1954, Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen became Carmen Jones, featuring some of America’s finest young black stars of the day: Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Brock Peters, and Olga James. Dandridge went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for best actress, making her the first African American actress to do so.

More recently, in 2001, hip-hop met Bizet in the MTV Films production Carmen: A Hip Hopera, starring Beyonce, Mekhi Phifer, Mos Def, and Wyclef Jean, with Robert Townsend directing. Mekhi Phifer also played the Othello-like lead in O, a film loosely based on the Shakespearean play, with a multiethnic cast.

Though the entertainment industry frequently uses the term urban as a catchall for anything black, Culpepper underscores the point that he sees urban in its broader, more realistic context. “Urban really means inner city,” he says. “And in the city there is a cross section of everyone–black, white, Latino, Asian.” Screen Gems’ Emma, which like Clueless is set in a high school,will be representative of that mix.

Chris Bender and J.C. Spink of American Pie fame will produce the film from a script by Menace II Society screenwriter Tyger Williams. No director has been named.

With its hip-hop veneer, Emma should certainly be digestible for its targeted young multicultural audience. Its announcement comes at a time when over the past decade the movie musical has seen some amazing box office hits like 2001’s Moulin Rouge ($175 million worldwide gross), 2002’s Chicago ($306 million worldwide gross) and Dreamgirls ($153 million worldwide gross). The Disney Channel’s High School Musical franchise has been a huge hit for the network. A remake of the 1980 hit film Fame is already in the works.

But there have also been musical duds like Rent, The Producers, and Phantom of Opera. And like everything else in Hollywood,