Color me Igbo

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has been the recent focus of movie execs and members of the Igbo community in Southern Nigeria. A petition, developed by Ashley Akunna, is protesting the casting of Thandie Newton as the film adaptation’s lead character. Newton is an acclaimed actress who has gained greater recognition in recent years for her roles in films such as Mission: Impossible II, The Pursuit of Happyness and Crash. She is of Zimbabwean descent and is set to play an Igbo woman caught in the thralls of the Biafran War, which ravaged a newly independent Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. The book has been heralded as a stunning depiction of the relationship between the Hausa and Igbo tribes during this period and received the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007.

Through the Twitter-sphere, I recently caught wind of the petition, which has garnered 300,000 signatures. It doesn’t aim to discredit Thandie Newton’s casting because of her talent, but rather because of her color. Ashley Akunna says,

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.

While I agree we need a wider array of representation in the media regarding all people of color, as a woman of Nigerian descent I find it difficult to jump in this particular fight about colorism for a number of reasons. For starters, I do believe that the folks responsible for this production could have easily found a Nigerian actress to step in and nail it. Nollywood is currently the second largest film industry in the world (in terms of number of annual film productions), placing it ahead of Hollywood and right behind Bollywood. Is this fight really about an underlying beef with Hollywood for scooping up the rights to the film before Nollywood had the chance?

Secondly, the screenplay is being treated by one of Nigeria’s own, Biyi Bandele, which brings a level of authenticity to the film that would be missing with an American behind the steering wheel. Having already written the stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Bandele is well aware of his responsibility to remain true to the work and its significance to the African diaspora. Is his authenticity up for examination too? Are we throwing the baby out with the bath water?

Igbo women at a wedding celebration

Lastly, Akunna mentions that Igbos “range in physical characteristics as well as complexion,” suggesting that there are Igbos who have lighter skin. As a woman with dark skin, I understand how problematic media portrayals of people of color can be when they consistently leave out those with a darker hue. Given the rise of skin bleaching in communities of color in an effort to achieve unrealistic ideals of beauty, the issue is particularly pertinent. Akunna declares the casting choice is “an abomination to Igboland” but colorism is an abomination that has been occurring in Igboland and other communities in the African diaspora long before the film version of Half of a Yellow Sun was discussed. As Akunna implies, if there are light-skinned women (sans skin bleaching) in Igboland, are we to believe they didn’t exist during the Biafran War? To admit that Igbos come in a variety of shades while simultaneously demanding authenticity is just as awkward as the assumption that all Africans are dark-skinned.

I would more eagerly support a petition that called for Africans throughout the diaspora to denounce colorism among ourselves and within our community. Only then can we radiate positive affirmations of every hue in our community outward. It begins with us.

What do you think? Is the casting of Thandie Newton the issue? Or are we debating our own reflections in the mirror?

by Folashade Kornegay

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