Thandie Newton cast in film about Biafran War. Critics: she’s “bi-racial” and “not Igbo”

I’ve never been able to finish Chimamanda Adichie’s second novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun”–set during the Biafran War in the late 1960s– despite the fact that it won high praise from mainstream Western critics. See here, here and here. Anyway, by the time I might actually finish it, the film version will probably be in theaters. The Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (highlights: Dirty Pretty Things and Inside Man) has already agreed to star in the film adaptation, alongside with Dominic Cooper (Captain America). This week Screen Daily reported that Zimbabwean-Brit actress Thandi Newton (credits: Crash, Mission Impossible) will be a female lead. Not everyone is happy with the choice of Newton as a female lead. There’s already a strange online petition to have Newton replaced with a Nigerian actress. The petition notes, among others, that “… Igbo people do not look like the bi-racial Thandie Newton.” You can read similar comments on posts about Newton’s casting at the popular film blog Shadow and Act here and here.

* Btw, separate from casting issues, the previous credits of the two producers of “Half of a Yellow Sun” include “The Last King of Scotland” and “The Constant Gardener,” both films noted for their problematic treatments of African subjects. As for Ejiofor, he has played Africans on screen before. In “Dirty Pretty Things” he was excellent as an African migrant caught up in the goings on at a seedy London hotel, while in the not-so-good “Red Dust” he played an activist appearing before South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He has also played Thabo Mbeki in the made-for-TV movie “Endgame.”


19 thoughts on “Thandie Newton cast in film about Biafran War. Critics: she’s “bi-racial” and “not Igbo”

  1. Hello,

    My name is Ashley Akunna, and I created this online petition. Can you explain why you think this petition is strange? Thank you.

    • Just out of curiosity Ms Akunna, if I may, since when did acting require that you must be indigenous to the region where the movie is adapted from? I guess the should have petitioned last king of Scotland, hotel Rwanda & mandela. Heck, and even the roots too. I am Igbo through & through & I don’t see what the fuss is all about. You guys should stop being overly ethnocentric.

      • @Okechukwu ,you are very right there,to an extent though. I did have d same thought as you when i read the write-up until i gave it a second thinking. You see,Ms Akunna may come out as being’ overly ethnocentric’ with a very good reason. As we all may or may not know, we have a gazillion of Unsung Heroes from our homeland,and soil. Great inventors,Achievers,Professors and investors,Scientists,d list could go on and on. But ..,due to the negative and sometimes bias Rep, Nigerians have been deprived of a possitive spotlight for too long,how long shall we fold our hands like some helpless victim while other people take credit for ours’ or our fathers’ hardwork and God-given Talent? Not so long ago, their was a similar topic on why d Great Chinua Achebe was sueing 50cent or so, for using the Title Things fall apart as his album Title because apparently the ignorant ones presumed it was a cheap thing for the Great Achebe to enrich himself or have cheap publicity.i dont know if you know d history of this Great Writer but if you do ,you will agree with me that he is to Nigeria what Nelson Mandela Is to SOUTH Africa.One of the Pioneers of African Literature this man had been Famous and highly respected i’m sure before 50cent parents ever dreamt of having babies. and all he is trying to do is to Protect and Preserve his Lives’Work which meant so much to him and his Culture ,not wanting his Art to to be toyed around by people that know not its values. things like this need to be checked and controlled especially now that Africans’ in Diaspora are keen on tracing back their Roots and Ancestory. My point here is that we all should put our hands together in lifting up Nigeria back to where we want it to be or else we ourselves may be one of the Un-song Heroes of Tommorrow.

    • Come on, guys. Let’s not all jump on Ashley Akunna. We need to pray for her, because she is definitely tripping. Only someone with deep-rooted issues of self-doubt would start a campaign like this. We will pray for you, Ashley Akunna.

  2. I think perhaps another reason people are annoyed about this decision is that Nigeria is the home of one of the world’s largest film industries and there are hundreds of well-known Nigerian (and Igbo) stars/actresses (probably more well known in much of Africa and the Caribbean than Thandie Newton) who could have played the part very well if there were not a Hollywood need for the face most recognizable to Americans…

  3. This film aims to be a mainstream Hollywood movie. In such films, how often do we see black women leads who are also love interest of dark complexion with non-caucasian facial features and non-thin bodies?

    We have seen too many bi-racial or white actresses play the roles of black women. I have nothing against Thandie Newton. She’s obviously a very capable actress. However this is a representation problem. Arguably, not all igbo women look alike. But is Thandie Newton a common representation of the character? Sophie Okenedo played the role of Tatiana Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. She doesn’t remotely represent the looks of the woman nor of the average Rwandan woman. The same uproar arose when Angelina Jolie was cast to play the role of Mariane van Neyenhoff Pearl (who is actually a mixed raced woman). I will not even mention the controversy surrounding white actresses who portrayed Cleopatra.

    The film industry betrays reality because it is afraid of casting actors that western audiences won’t relate to. It’s a very cynical habit and it needs to stop! This is the root of the problem.

    You cite problems with the way Africans are depicted in such movies. We often complain of the white messiah complex. Don’t you think film producers aren’t intelligent enough to know this? Even in historical films featuring black people – you’d think they are based on real facts yet they are distorted in their representation. This is a deliberate move and as long as it continues the audiences won’t smarten up and the industry will not see a reason to change their habits.

    Films and pop culture in general change and/or cement certain perceptions. This is not an issue of “don’t cast any bi-racial actor”. This is a call to cast the appropriate actors, in line with the original story.

    Frankly, the petition is not bizarre at all. Its language might disturb some but at the core it calls what is right and just. If the character is an Igbo woman, so why is it strange to expect a black woman who resembles the description of the character of the book* and not a visibly bi-racial woman?

    *I read the book many years ago and I don’t remember all the little details but I do remember that Thandie Newton’s character is described as beautiful but her sister is not. So one might argue that they should cast a conventionally beautiful black woman.

  4. I also pray that when they do the movie, they will not make the only white character the centre or the most important part of the story because he is not. I will be very shocked if they respect the core of the story line.

  5. I think it’s worth noting that Ejiofor played a Nigerian immigrant in Dirty Pretty Things and not simply an ‘African migrant’.

    I think the petition is taking things a little too far, though. What are they really planning to achieve? We can’t prove that Newton acquired the part unfairly. As a Nigerian myself I would’ve liked to have seen a Nigerian woman in this role most especially because of the sensitive historical events that provide the backdrop for this story. However, it’s not a do or die situation and I fear that this is all spiraling out of control, fueled by anger that originally came out of rightful concern. My main concern comes in the sense that if you’re not going to have an Igbo, or Nigerian, woman play the role, at least get someone who epitomizes the physical aspects of the character. Thandie Newton is biracial, the character she’s cast as is not and this is far from the first time we’ve seen films made in the West do this sort of thing and at this point, people have had enough. That and the fact that it’s the same mostly mixed-race actresses who are cast in these roles and others were either darker-skinned black women are meant to be (Paula Patton in Precious) or when black women are cast alongside a white male love interest (Paula Patton, Thandie Newton’s, Halle Berry, Zoe Saldana, Rosario Dawson, etc).

    I just don’t know how Adichie didn’t see this coming.

  6. Does it matter that she is not Nigerian? I dont think it matters. What I would be more concerned about is, Will they stay true to the story? I also think the petition shouldnt be in opposition to casting Thandie Newton who by the way is a very good actor whether biracial or not but the petition should be focused on having more Nigerian people in the movie. There is nothing wrong for a black actress whether mixed or not to act a Nigerian role. If you want to be ethnocentric then demand more Nigerian actors and acresses in the movie. I am Nigerian, I read the book. I love the book and I am not in the least bit disturbed by her casting in this role.

  7. There is more to this issue than skin color and race. This is also about white hegemony and phenotype genocide.

    Igbo women come in a range of colors, yes. But Igbo women also have a certain subset of features, aside from skin color, specific to their ethnic group.

    I appreciate this petition because, the way things are socially engineered, the wide phenotype range that exists among blacks in the Western world, or blacks of European admixture/descent (non-sub-Saharan lineages), has evolved a people indifference to specific ethnic differences in looks among indigenous African people. It’s also contributed to the fact that there continues a genocide traits specific to our sub-Saharan African ancestors continues via the social perpetuation of what/who is to be desired aesthetically – i.e, how they align/measure along the rule of white-ness or European-ness.

    The issue of certain physical traits specific to our indigenous unmixed sub-Saharan ancestors start being bred out of a population of SSA descent is a recurring one. This has happened several times among African descended populations, based on the influences that deemed sub-Saharan African features undesirable and unacceptable.

    This was applied in Puerto Rico where most of the population bred lighter, and were happy to see a mass exodus of afro-Puerto Ricans during the mid-1900s. This is currently happening in the Dominican Republic in regards to hair texture – any hair texture close in proximity to the hair textures of indigenous un-mixed sub-Saharan peoples is shunned, regarded as ‘dirty’.

    This happens, globally, among black identified individuals when people express that they wish to date non-Sub-Saharan descend people, or mixed people, because they desire a posterity with features that are less SSA – lighter skin color, ‘softer’ features, features more averaged between SSA and Nordic Caucasian bloodlines, silkier hair with looser curls, etc…

    There’s also the ideal, spanning across the entire aesthetic spectrum of the black race, that having European/Caucasian ancestry is more acceptable (desirable) than not having this ancestry. This can be seen in the minority, but prominent elite, European descended and identified mixed race population of Angola. While many individuals from this small ethnic group have physical traits close in proximity to the non-mixed sub-Saharan descended counterparts (brown/dark skin color, wide noses, curly and tightly coiled hair, etc…) it’s the fact that they have European ancestry/identity that makes them elite over the rest of the indigenous population. The same ideal was applied historically when African-American slaves repatriated to African, namely Liberia and Sierra Leone – the Americo-Liberians and Krio. The white Europeans used the close proximity of physical traits between the Africans of Westernized lineage/admixture and the indigenous un-mixed Africans as a way to penetrate the indigenous people, as they were not able to successfully do prior, by putting the new breed blacks in positions of authority over the non-colonized/non-penetrated blacks. The close proximity in phenotypes allowed for more social influence between the two groups, and the white colonialists used this to their advantage.

    We’ve, collectively, become passive in this continued genocide – the driving factors being commerce, industry and the all mighty dollar. Thus, people become blind to it in the name of social acceptance and mobility. The media is a major tool applied in conveying the social messages that influence the masses into these practices. Sure, a non-Igbo woman could play the role. But why does she have to be half white? Why is it that anytime Hollywood makes a movie about Africans they can’t be more authentic in their casting? What is wrong with the way non-mixed indigenous sub-Saharan African look that they can’t cast them to portray these parts? There are plenty of well trained, seasoned and talented un-mixed sub-Saharan Africans to choose from both in Black Hollywood, Nollywood, Gollywood, the Black Hollywood of South Africa…even in the Haitian movie industry. So, even among blacks WITH admixture, with European ancestry, and/or with Westernized lineages, why can’t someone with broader features that are closer in proximity to what actually Igbo people look like play this role? Hell, Australia’s movie and film industry has several season, trained and talent Aboriginal actors as well.

    This genocide of SSA people has not ended. We need to start speaking out. People need to wake-up.

    • You took the words out of my mouth. Spot on!
      It really is sad that everything about us from our cultures to our phenotypes have been deemed as being unattractive or “uncivilised”. It kills me to hear blacks accepting these negative perspectives of our race that I wish we could all be re-educated to love ourselves unconditionally and be immune to European standards of beauty.

  8. This is sad. rather than be happy that she is african, people are haggling that she is not nigerian. Then what start complaining that he actor is not from the right Nigerian state? Neighbourhood? yaya all actresses that grew up in the same neighbourhood as her with in 2 miles are qualified…

  9. This is cock and bull talk. What do you think that Nigerians look like? Drughead or cornhead! This is an insult to think beautiful black women are of mix race. Wakeup if you are sleeping. I feel insulted when someone makes such ignorant remark about Oh you are mixed . I am full blooded 100% Ibo woman, lighter than Hispanic people with green eye so are my other siblings. Both my parents never seen a white man before. I can count dozens like me in my town alone. It is a shame that even Ibos like me will ask me how are sure you are not mixed? I felt insulted. many of the ingnorant fools think that skin color makes them better than others anyone who feels like that is very inferior and is suffering from inferiority complex. Sorry do not let them fool you because more than skin color.

  10. If they give her a nappy hair wig or something SIMILAR to our hair texture then maybe I’ll agree to her acting, but for now. She just resembles a half WHITE, white washed woman in the movie as far as I’m concerned.

  11. Ok interesting read and people’s comments too. I do agree that they intentional chose a bi-racial actress to attract attention as as society currently is now if they used a Nigerian/Igbo woman then the chances of it being a big Hollywood movie are slim as perhaps the majority of appreciation for the movie will come from people of black race and black in them which is all well and good but we Blacks are not the only race to be reached out to. Thandie Newton despite her genotype and what not she passes perfectly as an Igbo woman, she even looks less bi-racial than a good percentage of Igbo women. I am an Igbo lady who was born and bred in Igbo land for the first 11years of my life and i look way more Bi-racial than Thandie, so if i were an actress and i was cast for this character then it’s ok even though i look bi-racial right? So there you go, looks-wise she passes and i think this is the the compromise they tried to pull, i cant really blame them, i mean in reality who wants to throw millions on a movie without thinking smart of how to pull in all audiences, the story is the center of the movie yes but picking the right actors/actresses is highly important too and by right i do mean ones that have a high rate appeal to all audiences whilst also suiting the part. I know bi-racial actors portray blacks often in films but this is the stage our society is currently at right now am afraid and to be honest we have come far through history and as the future progresses we are more recognized and given credit where due and i think time is of an essence here and a Black actor/actress portraying a Black person especially in important roles will slowly but surely not have a high risk of being Hollywood reject.

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