Representing Blackness: The Thandie Newton debate

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The bone of contention, according to an online petition launched against this film adaptation is that “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.”

 

By Tomi Oladepo

One of the earliest films I remember watching as a little girl was Roots, a story of slavery.

 

A particular dialogue from that touching film, which has stuck with me for all these years, is an exchange between Kunta and his slave master. Even as I write, their voices resound in my distant memory:

 

Slave Master: “Say your name is Toby”

Kunta (repeatedly lashed with a whip across the back, hands and feet in shackles, yells determinedly): “My name is KUNTA KINTE”

 

I have brought this to fore not to recount a story that has been told many times and in many ways, but to illustrate the pride a black man has in his identity and his culture. It sums up his being in ways plain words may not do sufficient justice to.

 

I am sure you, like I, have been in that situation where you wished you could dig deep into the richness of your local language that is laced with the perfect cultural nuance to pass across the intended meaning in your message satisfactorily. However, you find yourself having to stick to a globally recognized language for mass appeal – we’ll come back to this.

 

There is an ongoing controversy surrounding the proposed Hollywood film adaptation of the award-winning novel by Chimamanda Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. The book is a fictional narrative of the Nigerian-Biafran war in the 60s – an historical event that runs so culture-deep, it is still quite sensitive even today.

 

Characters in the story are Odenigbo, Olanna, Richard and more. However, Olanna (an Igbo woman) is a lead character whose role, Thandie Newton, a bi-racial American has been cast to play.

 

The bone of contention, according to an online petition launched against this film adaptation is that “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.”

 

According to them, this petition is important because for too long the mass media has represented blackness as “unattractive” and “undesirable”, to the point that African women have a negative image of themselves. They subscribe that casting Thandie Newton as an Igbo woman is not only false, but also promotes the idea that light skin and curly hair is the only way a black woman can be represented in the media as attractive. I quote the petition here, “this casting choice is an abomination to Igboland.”

 

As expected, blogs have risen across the globe to have an opinion bite of this controversy. Reactions have been mixed, as is the case in every debate. Albeit that there those who opine “we should be happy a movie about our history is being made”, others say it is unfair that in an ‘Igbo movie’ only one cast character is actually Igbo. One commentator says, “if you can’t act like us, and you do not look like us, don’t play us. Leave it be. Igbo people don’t play when it comes to our culture; history…”

 

Frankly, it is not difficult to see reason with those who are convinced a Nigerian actress should cast Olanna or Kainene’s role. Asides the challenge of how the black-woman is represented in global media, there is the fear that Thandie may not bring it when it comes to the accent, the ‘Nigeria-ness’, the igbo-feel. Why, simple! She is not Nigerian. Culturally, this is a valid point, but how about otherwise?

 

I recently got chatting on this issue with a prolific documentary filmmaker last week, Natasha Serlin, Director, The Bespoke Film Company, London. It was interesting to hear the other side of the story for a change; by ‘the other side’ I mean a non-African voice. Serlin presently has no Hollywood affiliations; therefore her views were highly dispassionate. She spoke strictly from the perspective of a professional and how the industry works.

 

A film is first and foremost a business venture that is expected to yield profit. A film churns profit by appealing to its intended audience and convincing them to part with hard earned cash to see it. Only then can this film transform into a Box Office hit.

 

Flash back to the point I made earlier on in this article about forgoing your local language for a more globally accepted alternative in conversations or communication, just to reach your target audience or have mass appeal. The case of Hollywood may not be too different either – they have a target audience to meet – and perhaps after weighing cultural sensibilities against the need for profit – we know what end of the scale topped the chart.

 

Natasha Serlin, speaking as a film producer clearly stated that this is a Hollywood movie as opposed to a Nollywood production, and it is looking to appeal to a global audience – this situation comes with both benefits and drawbacks. Since we are already familiar with the downsides of this arrangement, I will go on to enumerate Serlin’s positive ticks for this Hollywood production on Africa.

 

Firstly, the film would have a wider audience, which would in turn raise more awareness about the Igbo people and the Nigerian civil war. According to Serlin, majority of the audience who would be seeing this movie, may have never heard of the civil war, or have a faint and skewed idea about it. Although Thandie Newton may not accurately represent the Igbo people, her celebrity status is needed to make the film a viable production in Hollywood.

 

I made an attempt to counter Serlin here, that the movie Precious, cast a girl who wasn’t a celebrity as lead, Gabourey Sidibe, yet she managed to land big awards and as such launch into international limelight. Serlin nipped the bud with the response that this movie, Precious, had a supporting cast of very well known figures such as Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, plus the backing of O for Oprah.

 

She highlighted the fact that it is extremely competitive in Hollywood to get a film off the ground – it, like in any other business, has to have a strong selling point to have even a sniff at funding. Serlin is of the opinion that the decision to make a Hollywood film on the Half of a Yellow Sun novel with Thandie Newton, should be celebrated and encouraged.

 

On an endnote, Natasha Serlin through me a playful jab accompanied by a solid question,

Is there another actress of Thandie Newton’s international standing and skill that would be able to play this role instead?