Why Miles Davis biopic needed a white actor

Don Cheadle learnt to play the trumpet for his role as jazz legend Miles Davis.
Don Cheadle learnt to play the trumpet for his role as jazz legend Miles Davis. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

BERLIN • Don Cheadle aimed to make a biopic of Miles Davis as "explosive" as the jazz legend's music, but said the project would not have got off the ground without crowdfunding - and a white co-star.

The African-American actor directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in Miles Ahead, which he called a decade-long "Herculean" task.

Cheadle, 51, said financing was a major hurdle he cleared only when he raised about US$360,000 (S$506,619) on website Indiegogo, which allows artists to collect donations for projects, and hired Scottish star Ewan McGregor.

He said it was "one of the realities of the business" that films with all-black casts are thought to have little chance of distribution outside the United States and thus do not attract investment.

"There is a lot of apocryphal, not proven evidence that black films don't sell overseas," he said at the Berlin film festival amid a fierce debate in Hollywood about racial diversity. "Having a white actor in this film turned out to actually be a financial imperative."

Cheadle said it forced him to rework the script, which focuses on a period in the late 1970s in which Davis fell into a creative slump, to bring in a shady reporter as a kind of foil for the trumpet player.

"I think it works great and particularly the fact that Ewan McGregor is in it. But that was a component... allowing us to even have a budget to get the film made."

The film, which comes out in the US in April, finds Davis living as a cocaine-addled recluse in New York. Cheadle coaxes humour from Davis' sense that his best output is behind him, showing him call into a jazz radio station to correct the show host's moderation and then request him to play Solea from his 1960 album Sketches Of Spain.

McGregor's journalist gets stonewalled when he tries to convince Davis to give him a lengthy interview. But he gains the star's trust when he helps him recover a tape of new material stolen by a hoodlum.

The film features flashbacks to Davis' early career and his troubled marriage to his first love, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who is driven away by his drug addiction and womanising.

"I wanted it to be a movie that Miles Davis would want to star in. He'd have laughed at it... and been like 'That's slick, I didn't do that - that's bullshit - but I like that,'" Cheadle said.

The Oscar nominee for his role in the 2005 drama Hotel Rwanda said Davis' jazz had been the "soundtrack of his childhood" and that he learnt trumpet to play the part.

"I wanted to do something explosive, exciting, that felt like a ride and felt impressionistic and free form because that's what his music does to me," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline 'Why Miles Davis biopic needed a white actor'. Print Edition | Subscribe