Kirk Franklin: From Church Boy to...Movie Star?

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On Tuesday, Sunu Gonera was in town promoting his forthcoming debut as feature-film director: Pride, the true-life tale of Philadelphia swim-team coach Jim Ellis, played by Terrence Howard (Crash, Hustle & Flow). It was kinda surprising that the Zimbabwe-born Gonera had never been to Dallas before, considering that his next film -- or at least the one he's hoping to shoot before year's end -- is about local gospel phenom Kirk Franklin. Indeed, Gonera, who has a successful career as a director of commercials (for the likes of Nike and Coca-Cola) in Cape Town, South Africa, is planning on shooting the big-screen adaptation of Franklin's 1998 autobiography Church Boy.

Gonera says the film's "in development" now; he's awaiting a script from Norman Vance, one of the writers of Pride (and Beauty Shop), who's set to turn it in within two months, give or take. After that, there's still plenty of work to be done -- like finding a cast, figuring out whether to shoot locally or somewhere else (sounds familiar) and, most likely, giving the script yet another pass (or dozen, give or take). The only thing that's for certain is that Franklin will play himself.

"He's going through the rigors of acting classes at the moment," Gonera says. "Which is greast, because he's thrown himself into the role as he does his music, and it's going to be a huge film. And so far, the experience has been wonderful with Lionsgate [which produced and is distributing Pride]. We wanted to work together on something else, and this was one of the next big films they wanted to make, so they asked me what I thought. Knowing Kirk and knowing his life, and with me being passionate about real-life stories, it was a natural fit."

So how, exactly, did Gonera know who Franklin was?

"The weird thing is, Kirk was in South Africa about 11, 12 years ago," Gonera says. "I didn't know who he was then, but when I was on my way to church one morning, some DJ had announced that Kirk Franklin would be popping in to our church. And when I got there, there was a queue a mile long. It wrapped around the building twice and went way, way down the street. I was like, 'Who is this dude?' And then, when he walked in during the middle of prayers and worship, the place exploded. He sang, and I thought, 'OK, I get it.' Then I bought all his music, and since then I've been a huge fan."

And now they're good friends, having met on several occasions to discuss the adaptation. But all their meetings have taken place in Gonera's adopted hometown of Los Angeles; he's yet to come to the metroplex, save to promote Pride. And at the moment, he's unsure if they will even shoot here. It'd be odd for Franklin -- who was directing choirs in Dallas and Fort Worth when he was but 11 years old -- to tell his story anywhere else, but such are the necessities of the film biz. Indeed, Gonera just shot Pride in New Orleans, even though it's set in 1970s Philly.

"Obviously it would be nice to do stuff there," Gonera says, "but that's something, once the script is done, the studio is obviously going to figure out in terms of what makes most sense. For authenticity's sake, it would make sense to shoot it there, but there are many, many other considerations."

As for the film itself, Gonera insists it will not make the gospel singer look like a saint. It can't: The guy's a self-admitted porn junkie, and he isn't afraid to talk about his, ya know, demons. Gonera doesn't say precisely how much of that stuff'll make it into the movie, but he insists, "Kirk himself will tell you that he wants a real story. He doesn't want to come across like a person with a halo around his head. He wants his story to be told warts and all. That's one of my prerequisites: I will do it only if I can tell a real story. I don't want to pretend."

Till then, Gonera will likely be returning to Dallas to meet with Franklin, hang out with his family and start scouting locations -- even if only to recreate them in another city, should Lionsgate decide to shoot outside of the area.

"This is just a very exciting project," says the director. "It's something that, when I mention it to people, there's huge anticipation, because he's such a well-known character, which is the opposite of Jim Ellis in Pride. Jim's a school teacher, but even in Europe, Kirk has a huge following, which surprised me. And in Africa too. Huge." --Robert Wilonsky

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