Without a doubt, Chimamanda Adichie’s bestselling book “Half of a Yellow Sun” is a remarkable work detailing one of the most defining times in Nigerian history with a story that is at once human, complex and thoroughly enjoyable. This week, news came out that the book is going to be made into a movie, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dominic Cooper and Thandie Newton.
Yesterday, a petition surfaced online questioning the casting of Thandie Newton as (most likely) Olanna. Twitter, listservs and Facebook discussions have animated this issue to a point of distraction. Here is a portion of the petition:
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.
From casting Morgan Freeman as Mandela in Invictus, Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, Elizabeth Taylor as/in Cleopatra, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and Louis Gossett Jr as the former Egyptian president in the miniseries Sadat, Hollywood has always pushed the boundaries of role-play. Elizabeth Taylor was not semitic or was Louis Gossetts Jnr. However, the Egyptian government protested when Louis Gossett Jr, a black American was cast to play their past president whom they deem to have been anything but. The lead role in the famous broadway production Fela that took the world by storm for all of last year was played by Sahr Ngaujah, an American of Sierra Leonean descent.
So here is the question: is this a case of letting performance justify the means, or is there something wrong with casting an American in the role of an Igbo woman. Nevermind that there are very many Igbo (and Fulani/Yoruba/Edo) women who have lighter skins than Thandie Newton. Discuss.