Angelina Jolie is scheduled to direct Africa, a biopic about the controversial conservationist, palaeoanthropologist, and political activist Richard Leakey. As a fellow conservationist, Jolie will most likely empathize with Leakey’s contribution to saving African elephants and his heroic efforts to fight corruption. Nevertheless, some critics have already started speculating on Jolie’s ability to present the complexity of the character.
Leakey’s most well-known accomplishment was organizing the Kenya Wildlife Service. He ended corruption in elephant conservation, armed his men to the teeth, and gave orders to shoot poachers on sight. At the time, men from Somalia were flooding into Kenya, and managed to kill off 85 percent of the elephant herds in just a few years.
Some considered shooting and killing elephant poachers as extreme, but it’s hard to argue with success. Leakey’s forces not only killed poachers, he burned ivory stockpiles and successfully lobbied for a world-wide ban. Under his watch, elephant herds began to repopulate.
The violent clashes will make for excellent fast-paced action for Angelina Jolie’s movie. However, the events after his initial success with the Kenya Wildlife Service may prove to be far more difficult for Angelina Jolie to capture.
After years of making enemies, Leakey was in a plane crash, widely believed to be a politically motivated sabotage. The conservationist refused to leave Kenya or the wildlife service he created. He received poor medical care as a result. A trauma specialist eventually came to treat his wounds, but Richard’s condition had already diminished horribly, and the doctor had to amputate both legs.
It never stopped the conservationist. After unsuccessfully establishing an opposition party to take on the Kenyan president Moi, he took the job of head of the civil service and cabinet secretary. President Moi was forced to appoint Leakey because international donors were fed up with Moi’s corruption. Richard had a trusted name, and he managed to get the money flowing into Kenya once again.
Once that money came in, Moi scrapped Leakey’s projects and efforts. Richard was turned into a poster to attract foreign aid where it shouldn’t have gone. That complex aspect of his career will make it hard for Angelina Jolie to create a Hollywood hero out of the story.
Then there’s the issue of race.
Leakey has regularly been dismissed by political opponents as a racist and new-age colonialist. But he considers himself an African, despite being white. Jolie will have to be careful on his nuanced view of his own identity.
Despite all the pitfalls, Richard’s story is definitely worth telling on film. Angelina Jolie has a good team to make the film; Eric Roth, the writer of Forrest Gump, is penning the screenplay. In the end, Leakey may get an honor from Jolie that would make many people happy: He may be played by Brad Pitt.
[Image Credit: Georges Biard/Wikimedia Commons]