Yesterday, it was announced that British-born actress Thandie Newton will star in the film adaptation of Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel Half Of A Yellow Sun. The 2006 book, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, tells the story of the Nigerian-Biafran War from the perspectives of several different people: a professor, a young boy, a political figure, and a British citizen.
Newton is set to play one of the main roles along side fellow Brit, Chiwetel Ejiofor. While many see this as a step in the right direction for Hollywood, which has been slow to allow films featuring actors of color in leading roles, not everyone is happy Newton will be anchoring the film.
Nearly as quickly as it was announced that Newton, a biracial woman whose mother is Zimbabwean and father is white, would be starring in the film, a petition demanding the film be recast sprang up. Apparently, some are angry that the film’s producers picked Newton instead of casting an Igbo woman.
The petitioners write:
The main characters in this book are Igbo. Igbo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, and they were also the main victims of this horrifying war. Upon hearing that Half of a Yellow Sun, a wonderfully written book, would be adapted for the big screen, I like other Igbos were extremely excited. However, I am disturbed by the casting of Thandie Newton as an Igbo woman.
Igbo people, like any other people range in physical characteristics as well as complexion. However, the majority of Igbos are dark brown in complexion. Igbo people do not look like the bi-racial Thandie Newton. 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.
The petition continues:
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. We are indoctrinated into these beliefs consciously and sub-consciously through media images. Like many other countries in Africa, Nigeria suffers from the epidemic of skin bleaching. Many Nigerian women buy lotions, to lighten their once dark skin to become lighter. This practice has not only severe medical side effects, it is preaching an acceptance of self hate. The media plays a large role in how people, especially women view themselves. The casting of Thandie Newton as an Igbo woman is not only false, it helps promote the idea that light skin and curly hair is the only way black woman can be represented in the media, because that is the only way they are attractive. This casting choice is an abomination to Igboland.
This is indeed a tricky subject.
While it is understandable to want to see a film accurately reflect its subject, getting a film made in Hollywood is difficult enough and would be nearly impossible without having well-known actors leading the cast.
Also, if all films had to use actors who matched a fictional character’s ethnicity, nationality, or profession, how many films would make it to theaters?
Was Don Cheadle less convincing in Hotel Rwanda because he wasn’t from the region? Should Idris Elba not have been able to play Heimdall’s in ‘Thor’? Should Angela Bassett not have been cast as Rosa Parks because her skin isn’t as light as the Civil Rights hero?
Where is the line between allowing actors to act and wanting to stay true to the subject matter?
Clearly, there are no easy answers and the media has a history of “whitewashing” the stories of people of color. One look at any film featuring “Native Americans” and it’s clear that instead of using Indigenous actors, many directors chose to use white people with “darkened” skin. So this issue is, sadly, nothing new.
Either way, I commend the petitioners for standing up for what they believe in and continuing to hold filmmakers accountable for the images they choose to put on screen.
What do you think? Should Thandie Newton’s role be recast with an Igbo woman?