No sooner had the announcement been made that the film adaptation of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel Half Of A Yellow Sun was to star Thandie Newton, than a petition rang out. By now many people, mostly of Igbo or other Nigerian origin, have complained that the casting of Thandie Newton as the book’s Igbo female protagonist Olanna, is a slight they are not willing to suffer. The 2006 book tells the story of the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970, in which over a million people were killed or died of starvation. To be fair we do not know yet what role Thandie has accepted, but many are outraged that she could possibly be playing the role of Olanna.
The director, Nigerian novelist and playwright Biyi Bandele has a great cast locked into the film, including Nigerian Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor. Surely Bandele could have a say in who plays the Nigerian woman? Why did he not insist on a Nigerian actress if not an Igbo one?
As the petition’s originator, Ashley Akunna, said in the comments section on Clutch:
“This petition is about authenticity. Igbo people come in all complexions. However, the majority are dark brown in complexion. Thandie Newton is a wonderfully talented actress. However, I would be lying to you, if I said I know anyone in my village who looks like her. I have traveled all across Nigeria, from Abuja to Calabar, and Thandie Newton is not an accurate portrayal of what Igbo woman look like. Not in the slightest. Hollywood is known for giving preferential treatment to black female actors of a lighter hue. And that is definitely being displayed here with the casting of Thandie Newton. 365 days out of the year Africans are portrayed in media as some of the darkest people you will ever come across. However, when a role requires a beautiful Igbo actress, they want to cast a bi-racial woman who looks nothing like the people she is supposed to be playing. That is nonsense. Of course I would love an Igbo woman to have this part. But frankly any African woman who fits the description of what an AUTHENTIC IGBO WOMAN looks like will fit the bill. Don’t give me a watered down version of my ancestors and accept me to be happy. It is an insult to Igboland. FULL STOP.”
We clearly shouldn’t take crumbs and call it a three-course meal, as someone else commented.
Clearly the issue is a deep-seated one with us black women. We want to see media representations of ourselves – fair ones, not ones about us being beautiful or having full agency only when we’re fair, light-skinned or bi-racial. Which is basically how it’s worked out thus far. There are not many dark-skinned actresses outside of Nollywood that don’t get a raw deal. We were given a template by others, and we are expected to fully adhere to it. The shame. We have to be represented accurately, especially if the impetus for such representations is from ourselves!
Which is why I support the petition and hope that the production company for Chimamanda’s film strongly reconsiders Thandie Newton for the role, and puts in a Nigerian, darker-skinned actress if not an Igbo woman. I am sure this would be easy to do as there is a wealth of talent in Nigeria. We need to see other faces besides the well-known ones from the West. Cast someone well-known in Nigeria and trust me that movie will make bank like nobody’s business. Because Nigeria is the second-biggest film industry in the world (after India) it makes sense to take on the viable marketing scheme of a Nigerian face, rather than a British-Zimbabwean one, much as we adore Thandie.
It’s interesting how this works – you write a book, it is your IP, but through birth, it also belongs to the people you belong to and wrote about. The book is now the cultural heritage of the Igbo people. I wonder if the author takes no issue with who portrays one of her characters. Is this not part of the danger of a single story about Africans or black people that she herself warned of? We are multi-hued, let the contemporary portrayals of Africans finally reflect that.
Ogochukwu Nzewi, an Igbo woman living in South Africa, weighed in:
“There must have been prior engagement with her for her to be happy with the casting – it’s not something she’s hearing about now. Many factors contribute to make a movie, including financiers. She may have had to compromise, though unfavourable to many of us. It may be the excitement of having her novel made into a movie. There’s no rush for it to be made a movie. She should have had more editorial control, and put her foot down on casting. It should be as close to the novel as possible and not be compromised. Also, it’s the same old London movie mafia – where are the new faces? We have brilliant Nigerian actresses, even those living in London!”
“We don’t know who Thandie’s playing – but the question remains – how much can we compromise? We continue to have these voices, representing us. And they are not always close to our truths.”