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Politics of Hollywood’s Half of a Yellow Sun

The major controversy around the film seems to stem from the casting of Newton, who is of British and Zimbabwean heritage and is most known…

The major controversy around the film seems to stem from the casting of Newton, who is of British and Zimbabwean heritage and is most known for roles in American films. So offended was U.S.-based Nigerian filmmaker Ashley Akunna that she fired off a petition, which reads in part: “Thandie Newton is an accomplished and talented actress in her own right. However, she is not Igbo, she is not Nigerian, and she does not physically resemble Igbo women in the slightest. This petition is important, because we live in a world where mass media sells us the belief that white, and anything close to white is right, and black is not only wrong, it is unattractive, and undesirable. […]This petition is not an attack on Thandie Newton or bi-racial people. It is simply a demand for accuracy and authenticity.”

Although the argument could have been worded more carefully (it is dangerous to posit that there is only one “Igbo look”), I think Akunna’s objection to the casting is important for several reasons. First, although the idea of “authenticity” is a tricky one in an increasingly more mixed world, those who argue that any actor should be able to play any role ignore problematic power dynamics. In almost all “Hollywood” movies (and I use the term broadly) made about Africa, rarely do African actors from the countries in which the story is set play the main roles. In the exceptional case that a film about Africa does not feature white people as the main characters, faces well-known to Western audiences are cast to sell the film. American actors Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin and Kerry Washington as his wife starred in the Last King of Scotland (2006), though the protagonist role still went to Scottish actor James McAvoy; American Morgan Freeman played South African President Nelson Mandela in Invictus (2009) alongside American Matt Damon as national rugby coach; American Don Cheadle (2004) played the hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, with a supporting cast of mostly South African actors.

Perhaps part of the reason for the outrage over casting Newton is that the film in question is not merely an original Hollywood screenplay set in Africa. It is an adaptation of a beloved Nigerian literary classic that helped many young Nigerians imagine the neglected history of the Biafra war. Having Newton act in Half of a Yellow Sun as Olanna would be a bit like making a Hollywood version of Things Fall Apart with Denzel Washington as Okonkwo. Both actors, as brilliant as they are, seem out of place in these stories, which have become communal Nigerian, and Igbo, identity markers. Here’s the irony. Producer Andrea Calderwood cast two actual American Marines to play themselves in the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill” about the American invasion of Iraq. In an interview with the Scotsman, she said that for directors Ed Burns and David Simon, “authenticity is the No 1 thing. Ed said we were basically making this show for the Marines and if we hadn’t got it right for the Marines we hadn’t done our job.” Yet in the films she produces about Africa, it seems that any black actor will do.

Now, Forrest Whitaker played Idi Amin masterfully, and I have no doubt Thandie Newton can give a studied and professional performance in Half of a Yellow Sun. Neither do I have much of a problem with the film being made with international backing. After all, the novel itself received much of its popularity from an international market. However, in the casting, why aren’t Nigerians, like those American Marines, being given the opportunity to tell their own story? After all, J.K. Rowlings famously insisted that British actors play in adaptations of the Harry Potter novels. Cannot a similar argument be made for adaptation of Nigerian literature?

What makes it even worse is that Nigeria is the home of one of the largest film industries in the world, populated by hundreds of talented actresses, many of them Igbo, from upcoming theatre arts graduates to Nollywood superstars. With the sophisticated and moving performances I have seen in productions like The Figurine or Anchor Baby, surely there is someone who could suitably star in this important Nigerian story. With Nollywood’s huge success in attracting audiences across Africa and African diaspora, where Nollywood stars are often more recognized than their Hollywood counterparts, this cynical play to Western audiences becomes even more problematic. Not only does it cater to the West, it caters to the white West.

This is the issue the online petition seemed most concerned with: the light skin of the bi-racial British-Zimbabwean Newton as representing an Igbo Nigerian heroine. Some Nigerian intellectuals have criticized Akunna’s petition for being racist or tribalist. I think she has a legitimate complaint. Hollywood is notorious for casting only light-skinned black women for leading roles. In 2001, for example, biracial Halle Berry was the first (and so far only) “black” woman to win an Academy Award for best actress in a leading role—and that was for a role that included a graphic sex scene with a racist white prison guard. In America there seems to be no room for a sophisticated heroine who has a skin tone of  “West African sepia” as Wole Soyinka once termed it. To be fair, Nollywood and its Ghanaian counterpart also have their share of light-skinned and biracial actors: Monalisa Chinda, Tonto Dike, Mike Ezuruonye, Ramsey Noauh, Van Vicker, Michel Majid, Nadia Buhari and so on. Yet while there are still some problematic politics of colour similar to Hollywood, most times actors are cast sensibly in ways that illustrate the internal diversity of Nigerian society, which includes a whole range of skin tones. Most Nollywood actors are, as Akunna puts it, “dark brown in complexion.” So, why should a film based on a Nigerian novel about Nigerian history perpetuate the subtle but poisonous ideal that a heroine must be light-skinned?

Ultimately, however, my concern is more with the arrogance of a filmmaking system that will ignore a thriving acting culture rooted in society in which the story is based, than with skin colour. And ultimately the financial power of “Hollywood” is probably too entrenched for Akunna’s petition to make much difference this time. I am glad that Nigerian novelist and playwright Biyi Bandele will be directing the film and shooting it largely in Nigeria, but I would love to see Nollywood become so powerful that Nigerian authors would naturally sell their adapted novels only to Nigerian producers who would use Nigerian actors for Nigerian stories. It is happening with adaptations of Hausa and Yoruba novels; hopefully English novels will get there soon.

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