Are Dark-Skinned Black Women Perceived to Be the “Ugly Sisters” of Bi-racial Women?
Thandie Newton is a remarkable actress and human being. But I have to admit that when I first laid eyes on her in a commercial for the movie “Mission: Impossible II”, I was not sure whether she was a black woman. The commercial showed flashes of her and with her pale complexion, rail thin physique and bone straight hair she could have been of any race. Later I would learn that she is mixed, the child of a Zimbabwean mother and a British father. It is this bi-racial background that has made many of us shocked and appalled to find out that she has been successfully casted to play Olanna, the voluptuous, brown-skinned and strikingly beautiful Igbo heroine of the film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award winning book “Half of a Yellow Sun”. Simultaneously, the lovely brown-skinned Anika Noni Rose will play Olanna’s unattractive dark and boyish-framed fraternal twin sister Kainene.
To me, the casting may reveal the embedded prejudices of Hollywood. Did the people who casted the film find it hard to conceive of a strikingly beautiful brown skinned, shapely and unmistakably Sub-Saharan African woman? Is the term “black and stunning” so much of an oxymoron in their minds that they had to choose someone who is half white? Is the idea that shapely is more attractive than thin so untenable that they casted the shapelier woman to be the “ugly sister” and the thinner woman to be the “beautiful sister” and thereby disregarded Adichie’s descriptions? I’m reminded of a Facebook conversation that I had with Kola Boof in which she said that she literally could not get an accurate film adaptation of one her books because the protagonist of her book is a sexy charcoal skinned lady and movie execs could not fathom a sexy charcoal skinned beauty. This insult was not lost on the Nigerian people and in January of this year a Nigerian woman named Ashley Akunna created a petition on change.org to protest the casting. These are some of the most poignant words from the petition.
“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 petition is important, because we live in a world where mass media sells us the belief that white, and anything close to white is right, and black is not only wrong, it is unattractive, and undesirable. We are indoctrinated into these beliefs consciously and sub-consciously through media images. Like many other countries in Africa, Nigeria suffers from the epidemic of skin bleaching. ..This casting choice is an abomination to Igboland…This petition is not an attack on Thandie Newton or bi-racial people. It is simply a demand for accuracy and authenticity.”
The demand for authenticity is a demand to be human and to be seen and appreciated as we are as black people without the pressure to be mixed in order to be perceived favorably. There are roles in which the complexion of the character is not a part of the movie or where the character is specifically bi-racial. The role of Olanna is not one of them.
Let me be vulnerably honest, I’m saddened by the thought that women like me or Anika Noni Rose may usually be perceived as and portrayed as the “ugly sisters” of biracial women. I hope that love is enough for our collective healing.
Here are my other random thoughts.
The image of a stunning brown woman like CNN’s Aisha Sesay came to mind when I read about Olanna.
Other more appropriate pairings might have been the more voluptuous Genevieve Nnaji as Olanna and the thinner Adepero Oduye as Kainene.
If more known American actresses were needed than perhaps Kerry Washington (she should put on a few pounds) as Olanna and Regina King as Kainene.