Last year it was announced that work had begun adapting the novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche into a film, directed by playwright Biyi Bandele. Adiche’s beautiful and heart-wrenching novel centres around an Igbo family – particularly two sisters – Olanna and Kainene – during the Biafran war, which was fought between the Hausa and Igbo ethnic groups from 1967 to 1970 in Nigeria.
Early on there was criticism and debate, especially among Igbo Nigerian fans of the book regarding the casting of one of the central characters: Olanna is played by Thandie Newton. Most notably a petition by Ashley Akunna circulated the web urging Bandele to re-cast the character and others using “Igbo men, women and children in the leading roles”, and describing people of Igbo descent as “dark brown in complexion”. The main issue the petition and other critics have put forward has little to do with Newton’s talent. No one questions her abilities as an actress. This issue has more to do with the perpetual invisibility of women of colour – especially with dark skin – in all forms of visual media in favour of actresses and models with light skin and European hairstyles.
I have to admit, for me the upcoming film and its casting kind of drifted off my radar of priorities. However, it was brought to my attention again recently as the first photos were released and the premiere date and location were announced to be at the 2013 FESPACO film festival, which opens in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on February 23th. This was the first time I was aware of the fact that Anika Noni Rose was cast as Kainene, however this result was quite predictable. We already have deeply intrenched, global ideas of beauty and intelligence, informing us the lighter you are, the more beautiful or smart you are, and the darker you are the more stupid, plain or ugly you are.
Proof that these beauty standards are real and can have devastating material consequences was illustrated by psychologist Kenneth B. Clark’s landmark “doll test” in the 1940s (and also repeated recently by Kiri Davis from Harlem, NY. to show contemporary relevance), in addition to the rise of the skin bleaching industry, prevalent in parts of Asia – such as India - and West Africa – especially Nigeria (where the film is set) and Ghana, as sharply pointed out by Kola Boof in her acclaimed novel The Sexy Part of the Bible (2011). It’s not enough to just have light skin though. One also needs to have straight hair and at least mixed features, often sought after by cosmetic surgery, especially in South East Asia, illustrating how far European and North American standards of beauty have travelled and how much influence they have on women all over the world.
Therefore, it is disturbingly problematic that Olanna, who is characterised in the novel as: ‘the lush colour of rain-drenched earth’ is played by the light skinned Newton. Kainene is plain in contrast to her sister, described in the book as being: ‘not pretty at all.’ It is particularly worrying that these descriptions have been interpreted and reimagined by Bandele as Kainene also being darker than Olanna, in the sense that viewers may read her darkness as associated with her plainness. True, neither Newton or Rose is ugly or plain and they may well have been chosen based on their ability to act and convey this complex story. However, by casting a lighter skinned actress to play an individual characterised by her beauty and a darker skinned actress to play an individual characterised by her plainess, light and white skin’s exclusive association with beauty and desirability is only reinforced.
Having said all of this, Rose is not particularly dark-skinned either (yet noticeably darker than Newton), which raises the broader issue of the lack of visibility of dark skinned women in various forms of media, and in particular the fashion industry, for instance the recent scandal over Numéro magazine using a white model in blackface for an “African Queen” spread. Fashion shoots such as this one have an important influence on smaller-scale designers and the way they choose to present non-Western inspired designs using almost exclusively white models. While the world is up in arms over Numéro’s explicit slap in the face for black models, more subliminal assaults on black women and black beauty are increasingly slipping through the back-door.
Regardless of fan-based criticism and despite the fact that Nina Simone’s own family didn’t want the film made in this way, Cynthia Mort’s biopic is about to be released, with an unrepentant Zoe Saldaña playing the title character in actual blackface! Apparently, just as Numéro would prefer a white model over a model of African descent in an African themed fashion shoot, Mort would rather use a light-skinned actress to play a dark-skinned diva, who was the artist she was BECAUSE SHE LOOKED LIKE SHE DID. Simone would have undoubtably regarded the casting of this film about her life as well as that of Half of a Yellow Sun with the same contempt for colourism and abuse of the black body beautifully woven into her classic Four Women. The tragedy Simone is able to conjure through four verses brings to mind Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) – also dealing with the distressing but not altogether far fetched effects of colourism. At the very least, if the film industry was open to more actors and actresses of colour (as Lenny Henry argued for most recently), there would be a more diverse group of artists to choose from, presumably making it more likely for film makers to come into contact with talented, dark-skinned actresses to play the role of dark-skinned characters. This would also naturally force viewers to accept the existence and potential attractiveness of dark-skinned women, breaking the Eurocentric standard of beauty that has straddled societies globally for far too long.
The wider phenomenon within the film industry of white directors, producers and writers essentially “white-washing” non-white histories – especially where colonialism and slavery are concerned – in addition to portraying people of colour in less than favourable manners is of particular concern now more than ever. Recent examples have been in the way that Steven Speilberg portrays African Americans as passive in their fight for freedom, in his recent presidential biopic Lincoln (2012), Quentin Tarantino’s self-righteous, silly Spaghetti Western Django Unchained (2012) – merely serving to trivialise the brutality of the slavery era in the USA – and Argo (2012) by Ben Affleck – the true story of a Mexican-American – Antonio Mendez – working for the CIA during the Iranian hostage crisis in the 1970s, who is played by the white Affleck. According to this review of the film, Affleck manages to eradicate all aspects of Hispanic ethnicity in order for audiences to imagine him as a white North American.
These re-writes of history wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t coming from white men who have directly benefited from the horrors of slavery and present-day racial discrimination (towards both African and Mexican-American communities), or if we had multiple narratives to choose from that did not obscure, glamourise or make light of the horrors of slavery and imperialism, which are more often than not used as the back-drop for a story centering on white individuals. While directors such as Spike Lee have made efforts to remedy offensive portrayals of African Americans with more realistic and diverse images of black communities and histories, his body of work goes unappreciated in the film industry, which appear to favour Tarantino’s perverse brand of comedic fuckery. It is no coincidence that along with Affleck and Speilberg, Tarantino dominated the recent award season.
Also, maybe we could give this white-washing a pass – as well as that which is due to take place in Half of a Yellow Sun – if it were not for the fact that actors of colour (especially dark skinned women) are already so underrepresented within the media and especially the film industry. This is what makes it particularly disturbing, to have a Mexican American’s story told by a white American who imagines the original character as white, because he lives in a world where white is defaulted. To have a white director tell the story of the end of slavery and write out the role of enslaved and freed African Americans who played an integral part to give more screen time to a white politician. All the same as casting Thandie Newton instead of an actress of Igbo descent, or at the very least a dark-skinned actress, because Newton is beautiful according Western standards. It’s as though no thought has been given in any of the above fashion and film examples, to the detrimental material effects these choices will have on young people of colour’s self esteem or cultural pride, despite a genuine opportunity presenting itself in every case to step away from and ultimately disregard these archaic visual and entertainment standards. No, instead the easier option has been exploited, as well as the image of bodies of colour, for the entertainment of whites on one hand, while those responsible for these dehumanising images are praised on the other.
Half of a Yellow Sun should be the exception in the list presented here, however sadly, this is a severe case of ‘self loathing’ artists ‘reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over’ (Morrison 1999: vii).
Adichie, C. N. (2007) Half of a Yellow Sun. London: Harper Perennial.
Boof, K. (2011) The Sexy Part of the Bible. New York: Ashakic Books.
Esparza, M. (2013) ‘Argo plays to Hollywood’s worst traditions by erasing a Latino hero.’ The Guardian. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/08/argo-hollywood-latino-hero — Last updated: 2013.
George, N. (2013) ‘Black Characters are Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible.’ The New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/movies/awardsseason/black-characters-are-still-too-good-too-bad-or-invisible.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0 — Last updated: 2013.
Morrison, T. (1999) The Bluest Eye. London: Vintage Books.
O’Kelly, M. W. (2013) ‘We Owe Spike Lee a Huge Apology.’ Huffington Post: Black Voices. Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/morris-w-okelly/we-owe-spike-lee-a-huge-a_b_2528785.html — Last updated: 2013.
Overfield, A. (2013) ‘Zoe (kind of, somewhat, not really) Responds.’ The Official Home of Nina Simone. Available: http://www.ninasimone.com/2013/02/zoe-kind-of-somewhat-not-really-responds/ — Last updated: 2013.
Stewart, D. (2013) ‘The Truth about using a white girl in the ‘African Queen’ fashion shoot.’ Jezebel. Available: http://jezebel.com/5987856/the-truth-about-using-a-white-girl-in-an-african-queen-fashion-shoot?utm_campaign=socialflow_jezebel_facebook&utm_source=jezebel_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow — Last updated: 2013.
This article was updated on January 24 2014.