Save for an appearance Wednesday night to lecture on access to water and energy, Stony Brook professor Richard E. Leakey has been quiet about being the subject of Angelina Jolie’s new film, the biopic aptly named “Africa.” Perhaps he wants the movie to speak for itself. Perhaps he wants it to speak for him.
For a man who, at the age of 30, had already been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, it has been a lifetime of working for his homeland Kenya and fighting the ivory trade. His finest hour may have been in 1989, when at the side of his president Daniel arap Moi, he set 12 tons of elephant tusks ablaze to serve a message to the world: To destroy one of the most iconic animals in the world, as his longtime friend Lawrence B. Martin, Ph.D. put it, for expendable objects like piano keys and chess pieces is a disgrace.
“Richard’s excited,” said Martin, director of Stony Brook’s Turkana Basin Institute. After the fire, he explained, the African elephant’s poaching rate fell from thousands to less than 20 a year. But it has risen again, and the elephants are now killed faster than they are being born. His and Leakey’s profound hope, he said, will be that the film would relay the same message conveyed through flames and ashes years ago. This time he hopes to aim for the core: To eliminate the practice for good, internationally and domestically. The market should be stopped within Africa.
Martin himself expressed hopes that “Africa” would put the economically-suffering Kenya back on the map as a tourism destination, especially in the wake of a fear of terrorism and fear of the Ebola crisis, which he said is as far between Kenya and the stricken West African countries as Disneyland and Alaska. Unlike South Africa, he said, there are no parks, but an astonishingly beautiful stretch of land where the wildlife is truly wild. That is where the Turkana Basin Institute, founded by Leakey, sits in the middle of a desert by a lake, the nearest big city hours away.
“It’s such a rewarding experience,” said Melina Seabrook, a student studying there now.
With the Skype line crackling in effort to connect over the Atlantic, Jason E. Lewis, Research Assistant Professor and pending director of the Institute’s Origins Field School, mused from his room in Nairobi that “Angie would probably take some artistic license,” but that the movie would take from Leakey’s 2001 memoir, “Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa’s National Treasures,” thus focusing on Leakey’s activism over his archeological and paleontological work. An example of which is his team’s finding of Turkana Boy, a near-complete skeleton from 1.6 million years ago.“Indiana Jones has done enough to show archeology,” he said. A “quite close” friend of the Leakeys, having had dinners with them and going to France to see Meave Leakey, Richard’s wife, received an award last month, he is rereading the book to prepare for the movie.
The book was published on September 11, 2001, so it did not get much attention, said Martin, but the movie would make up for it.
As for who should play Leakey, Lewis could only imagine. “I haven’t figured it out yet,” he said. “The closest I got was Daniel Craig, but that’s not a good choice at all.”
It is still too early to know anything for certain about the movie, which will be script by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth. Though the Turkana Base Institute was alerted months ahead, Jolie and the producing company, Skydance Productions, have stayed mostly quiet on what is to come, other than expressing an effort to touch the “heart of Africa,” as has Leakey, who declined to comment.