Arts feature

‘Do black movies really not sell?’: Don Cheadle on Miles Ahead

The Oscar-nominated actor-director explains how Hollywood really works – and how his latest film broke all the rules

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

The musical biopic is a staple of the Hollywood economy. Like an Airfix model kit it comes with the necessary parts presupplied: sex, drugs and a soundtrack. All the director need do is glue them together. Actors are keen too, as portraying musicians is like prospecting for Oscars: in recent years the lives of Edith Piaf, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash’s wife June Carter have all won statuettes for their stars. The life of Miles Davis, with its giant musical peaks and deep personal troughs, is tailor-made for the big screen. But for years he couldn’t be captured in a bottle.

It hasn’t been for want of trying on the part of Don Cheadle, who stars in, directed, produced and took a co-writing credit on Miles Ahead. Despite the support of Davis’s son, daughter, nephew and first wife Frances Taylor, the film was trapped in a pipeline for aeons. While he waited, Cheadle had plenty of time to turn himself into a trumpeter good enough to perform onstage in the film’s coda with Davis collaborators Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (although it’s not him on the soundtrack). He proudly plays a clip of him on his phone, sobbing out a sliver of the solo from ‘Nefertiti’. ‘I never knew it was going to happen,’ he says, ‘but if it was going to happen I knew that I wanted to have that facility for sure. I didn’t want to be faking stuff.’

That was eight years ago. It has taken all that time to get to the point where he can sit cool and crosslegged on a sofa at a junket with the film in the can. The wait was so long that it easily outstrips Davis’s five-year fallow period in the 1970s when he stopped making music and concentrated on scoring drugs and dressing blingily. Rather than do the obvious thing and home in on Kind of Blue, the story of how Davis escaped that period and finally returned to music is the plot of Miles Ahead.

‘As a storyteller,’ says Cheadle, ‘that’s the period that makes me lean in. It’s very Miles Davis to me. It’s playing what’s not there. It’s the down note before the crescendo. It’s important to me to deal with it in a way that he would have dealt with it — something that’s impressionistic and fluid and innovative, not something that feels like the Cliff Notes of Miles Davis’s life.’

The sniffier jazz scholars will need to prepare for cardiac arrest because, like an improvised jazz solo unfolding on the hoof, the 1970s section of the script is an almost entirely invented blaxploitation caper. Only the flashbacks to his tempestuous marriage to Frances Taylor, the dancer and muse whose face adorns the cover of Davis’s 1961 recording Some Day My Prince Will Come, are more securely anchored in biopic territory.

Jazz has a history of eluding the clutches of scriptwriters. Aside from Clint Eastwood’s Bird about Charlie Parker, most film-makers have kept it freeform: Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, and, most recently, Whiplash made everything up. But still, why did Miles Ahead stay unmade for so long?

Cheadle explains that every category it belonged to decreased the pot. ‘It’s jazz — there’s shrinkage there. Period? “Oh, we just did it again.” It’s black cast: “OK, now everything you’re saying is making me try and see how I’m going to make a return on my investment.” This is the whole bugaboo. Is it really true that black movies don’t sell overseas? If you don’t sell them, sure. I know people who sell movies overseas who say, “When I’ve got the films in my briefcase and one of them is that whatever movie that’s got the black cast I don’t even pull that one out because the presumption is they’re not going to buy it.” It becomes a fait accompli and a self-fulfilling prophecy.’

Cheadle resorted to crowdfunding, deferred his own fee, and cast Ewan McGregor. McGregor plays a chancer who claims to write for Rolling Stone and seeks an interview with the reclusive Davis. Based on an actual journalist who can’t be named for fear he’ll sue, the part was always in the script but it became apparent that it needed to be played by an actor whose name would loosen purse strings. Which meant probably a white actor. ‘If Denzel Washington said, “Oh, I’ll play that part,” you wouldn’t need a white actor. You need a piece of international casting that will allow them to say, “Oh, I know how to sell that.”’

Cheadle is very much a mainstream figure in the US — a co-lead in the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy; star of a long-running Showtime comedy about unscrupulous management consultants called House of Lies; for several years he was the face of the NFL’s Super Bowl commercials. But he has long experience of the laborious business of raising money for more challenging projects. He was co-producer of Crash, the ensemble film about racial tensions in Los Angeles. ‘We had to put 17 actors in it to make it make sense for someone to pay for it. And still it was made for $6.8 million.’ It won the best picture in 2006.

On the first day of shooting Hotel Rwanda, in which he played a hotelier who sheltered Tutsis fleeing genocide, he got a call from his agent. ‘He said, “OK, there’s no money in the escrow.” “What are you talking about?” “There’s no money to pay anybody.” The producer just maxed out his credit cards and floated it until someone said, “All right.” I mean, this is not atypical.’

At least he was nominated for an Oscar, as was his co-star Sophie Okonedo. In a good year for black actors: Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman won gongs. So what did Cheadle make of the #oscarsowhite campaign a decade on? ‘It’s not to me about what happens in the late winter,’ he says. ‘That’s a symptom of what’s not happening where the decisions are being taken about what movies to greenlight. Junior executives are not being groomed to be in positions to make those decisions.’

There is an argument that the film industry is a capitalist enterprise pragmatically catering for a majoritarian mainstream of white teenage males. ‘Which might be synonymous with racism when you pars it and break it down and it’s put into practice. But I don’t expect [change] in a place that hasn’t ever really dealt with the root causes.’

In the meantime, he’s one of those actors who believes ‘a movie can be so impactful that it snaps everybody’s head around and people have to pay attention’. Hotel Rwanda got him invited on to a congressional delegation by two congressmen who thought its story could be used as a model for preventing genocide in Sudan. Cheadle even co-wrote a book about Darfur.

‘And things started to kind of snowball. I know it had an impact because Condoleezza Rice called me into her office to tell me to tell my friends to shut the fuck up. It was very interesting. I was like, “Wow, you’re the Secretary of State and that’s how you’re going to use your office, to tell me to tell activists to be quiet.”’

What did he say?

‘Nothing, because I wanted to leave.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Miles Ahead is in cinemas from 22 April.

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Show comments
  • Sargon the bone crusher

    Black ones don’t sell because it is a blank screen.
    You need black and white movies to see da picture.
    Stands ta reason

    • Trini’s dad

      You beginnin two unnerstan at least sommat, bratha.

  • Bardirect

    His gripe seems to be that white people don’t want make these movies because white people don’t want to watch them, but it seems black people in the US don’t either. US movies are made for US audiences and there’s a significant potential audience there but they aren’t watching are they? Otherwise it would be commercially viable.

    • rosebery

      I’ve listed a whole string of black musician biopics in another post, and I don’t think the argument about audiences altogether stacks up. Some were good, most weren’t, like the entire biopic canon. I don’t know if they made money, but word about a bad movie gets around fast.

    • Sargon the bone crusher


    • Tom Cullem

      I don’t think Clint Eastwood’s film did any better. Jazz has a huge audience in America, I always thought, but that is a bit different from a large audience for films about jazz, because film audiences are a different creature.

      All other issues aside, it is a bit depressing that that idiot film about One Direction had no problem getting out and making money, whilst a film like this languishes.

    • Trini’s dad

      You is taakin out of your battam, Johnnie. Gatt sum air wick ready bratha?

  • Chamber Pot

    I watched Shaft and Blackula so it’s not true.

  • IainRMuir

    Oh good, another grievance.

    • Tim Gilling

      I thought Don Cheadle seemed remarkably good humoured and laid back – considering how long he has worked on this project. Came across as reasonable, intelligent and articulate. The problem (and blinkers) appear to be yours, not his.

      • IainRMuir

        “There is an argument that the film industry is a capitalist enterprise
        pragmatically catering for a majoritarian mainstream of white teenage
        males. ‘Which might be synonymous with racism when you pars it and break
        it down and it’s put into practice. But I don’t expect [change] in a
        place that hasn’t ever really dealt with the root causes.’”

        Sounds like a grievance to me. Not the biggest perhaps, but a grievance nonetheless.

        And I’m entirely problem free, thanks.

  • MC73

    I suspect it’s the jazz that’s hard to market…

    • rosebery

      Actually, I’d buy that argument about anyone but Miles. Timeless, peerless and supreme.

      • Tom Cullem

        But you have to be a jazz aficionado to appreciate that.

        • Michael H Kenyon

          Better Miles Davis than “Guns n Roses”.

  • CockneyblokefromReading

    I find it very strange that the BBC has to employ so many black people in its dramas and factual programmes. A poor scientist somehow got chosen to be on the ‘Sky At Night’, and I see a lady with a very strange haircut has made it to ‘Secret Britain’ now. Now, of course, to even mention that to some people makes me subject to the accusation of being ‘racist’. For the record, I’m not, though I am bigoted (most people are). Watching the fist two episodes of the BBC series ‘Thirteen’ I see that the WPC guarding the girl is black (fair enough), but the new policeman sent in AND the chief of police sent from ‘Scotland Yard’ is also black – highly unlikely.

    Black people make up just 3% of people in the UK. But you would think they make up 15-20% if you just watched BBC television programmes. It’s odd, it’s as if the BBC want to make people think that there are more black people than there actually are. As I said, just 3%! Should this FACT be represented in BBC (and CH4) programmes, then obviously any programme with 100 people in it would have just 3 black people. But this is not what we see. Funnily enough, Asians (making up some 11% of the UK population) are hugely under-represented in both drama and factual programmes. Why is this?

    • MC

      it’s called being London centric. The rest of the UK isn’t important

      • IainRMuir

        “Problems” in Rotherham and one or two other places in the North were ignored for years without any help from London.

        Then there was Ray Honeyford – career destroyed without any London intervention.

        • rosebery

          Thank you for reminding me about the disgusting way in which the late Ray Honeyford was treated by the liberal elite and the attendant shrill voices at the time. They were then, and are now, determined to place every human activity on their Forbidden/Compulsory continuum, especially the expression of thought. The road to perdition never seemed more direct than now.

          • Tom Cullem

            Did anyone else see that one of the men recently arrested in connection with the Paris/Brussels attacks was featured at age 11 in a Swedish video lauding the success of “integration” of Muslims into the country?

            You couldn’t make it up.

    • Ron Todd

      Not just Blacks gays as well. Anybody learning about this country by just watching BBC would assume half the population was black and half the white men were gay.

      • CockneyblokefromReading

        That’s a good point that I had overlooked. I know of only one gay man, and two gay women.

        • Ron Todd

          Standard BBC presenting team one ethnic minority one gay one woman

    • Tom Cullem

      It is getting quite tiresome. I remain astonished that no one has yet managed to work a black character into “Outlander” or “Poldark” (not that that would stop the wife where the latter programme is concerned, he said wryly). Of course, the latest seasons of these haven’t premiered yet, so I suppose it could still happen. After all, they managed to work them into “Downton Abbey” and “Mr Selfridge”.

      And we are, I understand, to be treated to Margaret of Anjou being played by Sophie Okenedo in the upcoming “Richard III” with Cumberbatch – but just try even recording “Porgy and Bess” with a white bass-baritone.

      The message is, “minority” cultures are off-limits and “cultural appropriation” is to be avoided at all costs. But when it comes to Shakespeare, “art is universal”. White Porgy, bad; black Hamlet, good. Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in a fatuously awful massacre of Barrie’s lovely classic, bad; Idris Elba as Norse god Heimdall, good.

      • CockneyblokefromReading

        Sophie Okenedo as a white queen?!? Are you serious?

      • S McNeill

        Margaret of Anjou was white – how ridiculous and ultra PC to have Sophie Okenedo playing her. She is a very good actress, but they are re-writing history to shoe-horn her into the role. What next – a black Elizabeth the first? If the black nurse Mary Seacole was portrayed by a white actress there would be uproar (and rightly so). She played Winnie Mandela and was fabulous – but if that had been played by a white actress it would be farcical.

    • Paul Moylan

      It’s not just television, 3% of the population and 15% of the prison population.

      Their academic accolades are equally abysmal, as is every other thing we attribute to societal well being. Average IQ, repeat criminal offending, STD rate, contribution to science, contributions to the economy, domestic violence etc……… our societies simply don’t function with them in mind without ‘support’. Both fiscal and hands on. IE; we have to send police into their areas and run the courts our they would become horribly corrupt and stop functioning. It’s not enough to post over aid, we need to build them schools and deal with disease outbreaks.

      It’s an attempt to ‘help’ them, this forced inclusion. Asians, and I mean actual Asians and not Arabs, don’t need handouts or hand-ups. This help is to try and encourage black youth, to ‘break the cycle’. It’s working on the failed assumption that we are all the same and equally interchangeable. It’s the same story with EVERY single black society the world over, nowhere have these differences been overcome.

      The approach now seems to be to deny any such differences exist, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up for a different result.

    • S McNeill

      They get put under pressure by black actors with huge chips on their shoulders (Idrees Alba for example). Most of them live in London, which does not represent the rest of the UK – the percentages of blacks are very different outside of London. I agree with another poster – UK Asians are very unrepresented whereas to look at programmes and adverts (in particular) you would think the UK as a whole is at least 25% black, whereas it is actually just 3%. At the moment adverts are regularly portraying mixed race families – almost as if it is not ok to have black families or white families that are not mixed. It’s all so PC.

  • Colonel Mustard

    ‘Majoritarianism’ appears to be a (dirty) word made up in the 1960s to discredit majorities and empower minorities. ‘Majoritarian’ is listed from 1917 so no doubt commies, socialists and other peddlers of agitprop are linked to its invention. Wiki makes it sound established but is light on both origin and entymology. It is a weaponised word and it derives from the left.

    • Minstrel Boy

      Leftist have been on an orchestrated crusade to monopilise the means of mass communication for most of the 20th century. Aside from murdering millions in historically redacted ideological campaigns, they are extremely diligent in their efforts to control and limit the means of thought and discourse in every forum. Time they were all sent on permanent vacation to their socialist heartlands of North Korea, Cuba, and China. Russia, at least, seems to have awoken to the bleary eyed recognition that 73 years of Communist idiocy produced nothing except poverty and exploitation. Quelle surprise!

    • Trini’s dad

      Your grievance peace na interest me bratha. When you gatt an issue wit di left hand, cut it off.

  • Frank

    I could be wrong, but the current big market driver for Hollywood appears to be Asian males, not teenage whites.
    Secondly, Hollywood will probably fund anything that sells.

  • Swarm of Drones

    Mr Cheadle ought to have been awarded an Oscar for Hotel Rwanda.
    Miles Davis is undoubtedly the most influential musician of the 20th century.
    I doubt this movie will do the man justice.

    • Tom Cullem

      Actually, if you go to IMDb, Most Influential Musicians of the 20th Century, David Bowie heads the list and Mr Davis has some very stiff competition in terms of “influential” in Presley, Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, Chuck Berry, BB King, Bob Dylan, and Duke Ellington.

      And if you go to THIS list, the Beatles come out ahead and Davis comes in second:

      And, of course, the classical canon is totally ignored, but if you turn to that, Stravinsky heads the list – but I doubt a film about him would sell, either. (Although the way things are these days, Cheadle might have a shot at that role, too.)

      Mind, I am extremely fond of Mr Cheadle as an actor and his performance in Hotel Rwanda was memorable, something I say about few performances these days.

      But the old “bestest” “mostest” is really far too subjective to take seriously.

    • trobrianders

      Are you suggesting Ray is thought of to be the more influential musician because a movie about him won Oscars? That would be silly.

  • Roger Hudson

    Let’s hear it for ‘Shaft’ and ‘Shaft’s big score’, from the glory years of cinema.

  • Anna Bananahammok

    Bollywood produces more films than Hollywood, and I never hear of any complaints about race there.

    • Minstrel Boy

      The predominantly South Asian audience for Bollywood movies both in South Asia and across the world do NOT regard themselves as black. The predominantly Han Chinese audience for Hong Kong movies in East Asia and across the world do NOT regard themselves as black. I am surprised that this may be news to you. Even the populations of South Mediterranean and North African states do not regard themselves as black and take great exception to being so labeled. Only European leftists lump all of these disparate peoples together and then accuse fellow Europeans of being ‘racists’.
      Sub-Saharan Africans are the third largest population group on the planet and are estimated to quadruple in numbers between 2016 and 2100. They currently do not seem to produce many films with popular, world-wide appeal, but then they are currently unable to feed, clothe, house, educate, or medicate, let alone entertain their current populations with film output. How well they will succeed at this, and all their other challenges, when their population is four times its current size in 84 years time is a subject for interesting discussion!

  • trobrianders

    I do not know if black movies really do not sell. I do know good movies generally do.

    • mrmrsspence

      Are you suggesting bad movies don’t sell? That would be, what shall I call it to minimise the offnece taken, silly wouldn’t it?

      • trobrianders

        I’m suggesting good movies generally sell. Hardly contentious.

        • Trini’s dad

          Na sista, you suckgesting you no about whitey movies. Wha dat? You jus stupppid an’ you is definitely na black so why you pretend you are? Jus dumm.

          • trobrianders


  • george sanders

    No one has mentioned the “Night Manager”, which most of us enjoyed recently. Having read the book before the series arrived, I noticed the BBC had changed the head of the intelligence agency involved to female from male and I seem to remember that the American CIA man was not black, but there you are…OBs, obligatory blacks are everywhere…

    • David Beard

      I used to love the old spy stuff they made back in the day, like Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy… Have you seen the latest Tom Hanks ‘Bridge of Spies’? Not bad at all. And thankfully as far a I can tell, quite free of modern interference.

      This is Peter Hitchens’s Mail on Sunday column …. Elizabeth Debicki was sadistically tortured, when no such thing happens in the book. ….. The BBC’s new thriller The Night Manager must be one of the strangest things ever broadcast.

      • george sanders

        Have not seen “Bridge of Spies” yet, but do intend to…been watching “Follow the money” – very interesting.

  • Vinnie

    Pursuit of happiness was really good but it may be because it was a good film which wasn’t about race but the main characters and his son just happened to be black