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‘Gladiator’ Creator Wants Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr. to Star in a Film About Rumi

#RumiWasntWhite.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06:  Leonardo DiCaprio is seen in the East Village  on June 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Alo Ceballos/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06: Leonardo DiCaprio is seen in the East Village on June 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Alo Ceballos/GC Images)

When 13th century Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi wrote “See how the polestar is ogling Leo,” he was probably referring to the constellation, not Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio. Or maybe the mystic was augering his legacy’s unfortunate future in the hands of Gladiator writer David Franzoni, who is working on a big-budget biopic of the poet, and who wants DiCaprio for the starring role.

Rumi was born in what is now either Afghanistan or Tajikistan, on what was then the outskirts of the Persian empire, but wound up in Asia Minor after fleeing the Mongols with his family. He produced his great works in the Anatolian city of Konya, which was the Seljuk capital. His poetry, and his combined approach to ecstatic worship, dance, music, and the written word earned acclaim as part of a growing movement that emphasized Islamic mysticism. He remains popular both within and outside the Muslim world: In 2014, the BBC reported that he was the best-selling poet in the United States.

Franzoni, best known for Amistad (1997) and Gladiator (2000), told the Guardian he went to Turkey last week to interview Rumi scholars in Istanbul and to visit his protagonist’s mausoleum in Konya.

“He’s like a Shakespeare,” Franzoni said of Rumi. “He’s a character who has enormous talent and worth to his society and his people, and obviously resonates today. Those people are always worth exploring.”

Franzoni and producer Stephen Joel Brown said they saw DiCaprio as Rumi and Robert Downey Jr. as the poet’s spiritual mentor, Shams of Tabriz. “This is the level of casting that we’re talking about,” Brown told the Guardian. Official casting for the film has not yet begun.

According to the Guardian, Franzoni and Brown want to “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in Western cinema by charting the life of the great Sufi scholar.” Their apparent notion of how to do this — casting white guys as brown, Muslim historical figures — has already met criticism.

Following this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which focused renewed attention on the lack of diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and in Hollywood more broadly, the issue of race, skin color, and casting has come under broad scrutiny. Fans have criticized a new Nina Simone biopic’s choice of Afro-Latina actor Zoe Saldana for the main role — her face had to be darkened to look like Simone’s. Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange, in a role originally characterized as a Tibetan man, also drew criticism, as did Scarlett Johansson’s casting as augmented-cybernetic Japanese character Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Last year, Gods of Egypt received similar critiques. So too did Gladiator director Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The early backlash might head off misguided casting decisions in the case of the Rumi film. Whether Hollywood can do right by by the poet’s story remains to be seen.

Image credits: Alo Ceballos/GC Images; Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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