Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Too Light or White to be African? Why I support Thandie Newton..

Late last week while perusing my online gossip sites for the latest celeb scoop, I read the news that actress Thandie Newton is slated to star in the film adaption of Chimanda Ngozi Adichie award winning book Half Of A Yellow Sun. Almost instantly my twitter timeline went berserk at the news of an online petition against the decision to cast Thandie (a biracial woman) as a Nigerian Igbo woman.  The petition urges the production company to reassess the casting of Miss Newton and replace her role with an authentic dark skinned Igbo woman. 
Thandie Newton

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.

This is an extremely touchy subject and I almost understand where the petitioners are coming from. As a dark skinned woman trust me when I tell you I’ve experienced many bouts of ignorance from other people in regards to my skin color. I can’t walk down the street without film, print and TV bombarding me with message “that if ain’t white it ain’t right”. However that being said, I strongly disagree with this petition.

Thandie may not be Nigerian or Igbo but she is an African woman. Newton is the daughter of Zimbabwean mother and a British father. She actually lived in Zambia and moved back to the UK at the age of 11. Furthermore she is an actress, she is not playing Thandie Netwon.  A talented actor/actress  has the ability to research, embody and take on the spirit of any role. I question the origins of the petition. Why didn’t this petition exist when Sophie Okenedo was cast in a lead role Hotel Rwanda? She’s also biracial, where was fury then? Better yet Idris Elba is in talks to play Nelson Mandela in a film adaption for Madiba’s life. Are we mad that he’s not from South Africa since he was born in the UK?

Let me remind you that the film also stars Chiwetel Ejifor who also belongs to the Igbo tribe. Ejifor an accomplished actor in his own right was born in London to Nigerian parents. Are we going to protest the fact that Ejifor was born in London and not Nigeria? Where does the line of African authenticity start and begin?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The truth of the matter is that Igbo women come in all shades of color, some as light as Thandie. Why do we as black folks/Africans feel the need to slice and dice blackness? When will we stop with the black on black racism? Or in this instance, African on African racism? A commentator on a popular site posted:

In fact, growing up in Nigeria, the term Igbo yellow was often used to refer to the fact that many Igbos are in fact light skinned. To be honest, Thandie could stand next to a few Igbo women I know, who are not biracial and her skin tone would match theirs.

My people, let’s not kid ourselves here, this is a Hollywood flick. Thandie is a great actress and highly recognizable by both UK & US audiences. Nominated for many film awards, it’s no brainer that she was cast as a lead actress. in my opinion this is a step in the right direction for Hollywood, way better than casting Terrance Howard and Jennifer Hudson in a Winnie Mandela movie. At least Thandie is half African and is a very accomplished actress. Let’s give her a chance and stop with the negativity. I for one am waiting with baited breath to see the movie.


  1. I to, love Thandie Newton and her work as an actress. As touchy as this subject is however, it is not OUR story. The Igbo people have a right to want an honest portrayal of what THEY deem to be a true representation of themselves. This is not about who is born where and if they are half this or that, but the "one drop" rule that is in the Eurocentric society does not apply in Africa. "colored" people (mixed) , in Africa at least, do not consider themselves black. If the Igbo people take issue with it they take issue with it, it is not up to us, non-Igbo people, with little to no understanding of their racial identity or dynamics, to be upset about their decision to not be behind Newton's casting. It's not about hating or negativity (although some will take it there, which is unforunate) but it is about authentic representation of this character, and dark skinned/Igbo/Nilotic black women to see an HONEST representation of their selves and their story in a film, for once. (side note, Sophie Okenedo in Hotel Rwanda was cast because she was supposed to be "Tutsi", which were the lighter skinned Rwandas at war with the "Hutu", the darker skinned Rwandans. Her casting was very deliberate and informed the story a great deal)

    1. I hear you Miss T.. Anytime an African story is told, to me as African person it is my story as well. And as an African I fully support the casting of Thandie Newton. Re: The Igbo people there is no 1 consensus about how people feel about this issue. This was one person who started this and she clearly has supporters. Having read a ton of commentary about this controversy there are people that fully support Thandie in this capacity as an Igbo woman. What exactly is an honest representation of an Igbo woman? There are light skinned Igbo women in the world. Are they denied their Africaness because they are light?

  2. I know an Igbo, born and raised, Woman who is lighter than Thandie Newton. So it is definitely not an "honest" portrayal to the typical Igbo woman.

  3. Those Igbo are just bein' igno'. If Forest Steven Whitaker, an American, could act the part of Idi Amin Dada, a Kakwa (The Last King Of Scotland), Morgan Freeman, yet another American, could wear the shoes of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Invictus) and Leonardo DiCaprio, yet another Yankee, could play the part of of a Rhodesian-born, South African diamond smuggler (Blood Diamonds), then I'm sure Miss Tandie will do just fine. It's just a movie, not a documentary, for goodness sake. What next aliens complaining they want to play themselves in the movies?

  4. The heat over this issue should probably be directed at Hollywood more than anyone else. Let's do some substitutions and see if the same logic would be applied.
    Let's take a Paula Patton for example, who is mixed, but could definitely "pass" as white. Would she ever be cast to play a historically white character? WHY would a Liz Taylor be cast to Play Cleopatra? (Hollywood will even CHANGE the representation of a character to sell more movie tickets) Just because it is profitable, does not make it any less bigoted.

    I suppose this discussion should be directed more towards the "principle" being examined here as opposed to the actual casting for this particular movie. Mind you, I am a light skinned woman (by African standards) and I am well aware of how that, truthfully, affords me some privilidge in the warped/racially influenced society. I am also a film maker and avid African/African American history scholar and have seen a lot of these casting wars and their subtleties first hand. It would be nice is we could all hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but the layers of complexity involved in this cannot be resolved by "color-blindedness" if you will.

    1. Face it, Hollywood takes liberties. This isn't a white/black issue. I mean, Ben Kingsley is a talented actor but he is neither Indian (Gandhi) nor Middle-Eastern (The House of Sand and Fog). As a woman of Indian descent, I get it. It might have irked me some but only because I had prior knowledge of his race. Had I not known, it wouldn't have been an issue---because he did THAT great a performance! Same with Thandie. I heard of the Igbo for the first time today, so I don't purport to have a strong horse in this race, but...you shouldn't expect any amount of reality in modern cinema. I mean, it's poetic license...As KID said, "It's not a documentary". Perhaps, (and I am guessing they might), the directors will air an obligatory "blurb" either before or after the film featuring real Igbo women.

  5. I think the bigger issue is continuity. Thandie is indeed a big name, not necessarily because she's a very good actress. That might have drawn out the crowds but her portrayal doesn't fit the character from the book and she looks nothing like Anika Noni Rose (who, by the way, is *supposed* to be the less attractive sister...). There's no continuity- it just make sense, plus she's not a consistently good actress although I do feel she gives her performances her all. All of this makes the reason for her casting all the more evident and insulting.


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