Why It’s the Right Time for an Easy Rawlins Film Franchise

Walter Mosley/Photo © WideVision Photo/Marcia Wilson

Ever since the 1995 release of “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the sexy, sly-eyed adaptation of Walter Mosley’s 1990 hard-boiled mystery about World War II veteran-turned-private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, I’ve been clamoring for a related movie or television franchise. We’ve been saddled with Bourne franchises, Bond franchises, and a slew of Marlowe and Ripley films, all of which have been ripped from mystery thriller book series. So why not an Easy franchise? It’s especially surprising that one didn’t launch given that Oscar winner Denzel Washington, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the last thirty years, took on the role of Rawlins for that film. (Though “Devil” performed only moderately well at the box office, it was roundly praised for charismatic performances from Washington, Jennifer Beals, and then-newcomer Don Cheadle.)

In fact, “Devil” is the only Easy Rawlins adaptation to date, though there are ten books in the series as well as a handful of short stories featuring the private investigator. Three TV and film projects have been adapted from Mosley properties – a 1993 Showtime series, a 1998 HBO TV movie, and a 2007 Mosley-penned “Masters of Science Fiction” episode titled “Little Brother” – but many more have fallen by the wayside. The Long Fall, the first book in his series about New York City private investigator Leonid McGill, was reportedly being developed for an HBO series, but plans were dropped, as presumably were announced plans for Samuel L. Jackson’s big-screen adaptation of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a TNT TV series based on Fearless Jones, an Anthony Mackie film based on Mosley’s psychological thriller The Man in My Basement, a Laurence Fishburne HBO adaptation of Mosley’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, and a Spike TV series based on the Mosley short story “Mr. In Between.” Mosley went so far as to form a production company (called “BOB Filmhouse,” for “Best of Brooklyn”) to make “television and shows and movies … my kind,” as he told the Los Angeles Times, but until recently nothing came about. Earlier this decade, an NBC series about Easy was announced, but to my relief nothing came to fruition; the books’ grit would not have survived network censors.

Next year more Mosley productions may finally come to light. MTV has announced plans for “Blooms,” a coming-of-age series written by Mosley and produced by and starring brothers Max and Charlie Carver as twins who learn of each other’s existence when their father is murdered. (Themes of murky pasts and murder are very Mosley.) And an adaptation of Mosley’s 2006 book, Killing Johnny Fry (subtitled A Sexistential Novel by Walter Mosley; you gotta love this guy), is reportedly being shepherded by writer-director Paul Chart and produced by Mosley’s BOB.

I still clamor for an Easy Rawlins franchise, though. It’s not just that it’s Mosley’s signatures series, one that stylishly visits the underbelly of mid-twentieth-century America in all its shaggy-dog glory. It’s that through these sagas Mosley has been able to explore so much about the American experience – our unique history of bravado, racial trauma, social justice, and economic indignities. What’s more, he has done so with such a gimlet eye and such syncopated prose that he’s fashioned the literary equivalent of the speakeasy of our dreams.

It may seem knee-jerk to assert an Easy Rawlins franchise has eluded us so far because it centers on the “black experience,” yet I believe this is the case. Hollywood historically has been very reluctant to put real money behind projects about and/or by people of color; witness the difficulties director Ava DeVurnay experienced when birthing the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma.” It is only very recently that a project like Netflix’s “Luke Cage,” which Rolling Stone dubbed the “first Black Lives Matter superhero” series, could come into being. That said, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with the apparent success of “Luke Cage” and this fall’s “Moonlight” (about the childhood and adolescence of a black gay gangster), Hollywood may finally be willing to take a chance on Mr. Rawlins, whose story – a Southern migrant rebirthing himself in the California sun – is in many ways the story of this country.

As usual, Mosley himself says it best: “Science and religion, capitalism and socialism, caste and character are all on the auction block these days. The waters are rising while we are dreaming of dancing with the stars. We call ourselves social creatures when indeed we are pack animals. We, many of us, say that we are middle class when in reality we are salt-of-the-earth working-class drones existing at the whim of systems that distribute our life’s blood as so much spare change.” As Tina Turner once sang, bring that wisdom on, “nice and easy.”