Tuesday, January 31, 2012

When Does Light Bright and Damn Near White Become a Problem?


The gorgeous and super talented Thandie Newton has been cast to play an Igbo woman in the film adaptation of Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel Half a Yellow Sun.  Thandie Newton is a bi-racial woman whose father is White and mother is a Black Zimbabwean woman. Shortly after Thandie was cast a petition was created in protest.

The petition reads:
Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novel chronicles the lives of several characters during the course of the Biafran War that took place in Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. Tribal conflicts between the Hausa and the Igbo initiated this Nigerian Civil War, which led to the genocide and starvation of over 3 million people. The main characters in this book are Igbo. Igbo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, and they were also the main victims of this horrifying war. Upon hearing that Half of a Yellow Sun, a wonderfully written book, would be adapted for the big screen, I like other Igbos were extremely excited. However, I am disturbed by the casting of Thandie Newton as an Igbo woman.

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.

As a result, I have created this petition to demand the following things:

1. The use of Igbo men, women, and children, who look like the majority of Igbo people (which means brown in complexion) in the leading roles of the film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's, Half of a Yellow Sun.

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. Many Nigerian women buy lotions, to lighten their once dark skin to become lighter. This practice has not only severe medical side effects, it is preaching an acceptance of self hate. The media plays a large role in how people, especially women view themselves. The casting of Thandie Newton as an Igbo woman is not only false, it helps promote the idea that light skin and curly hair is the only way black woman can be represented in the media, because that is the only way they are attractive. 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.

Failure by the producers of Half of a Yellow Sun, to meet these requirements will result in the failure of everyone who signs this petition to support Half of a Yellow Sun when it is available in theaters or for purchase.
This petition focuses on some very important issues in terms of representation of Black people in the media as well as perpetuating the dark skin/light skin divide.  The truth of the matter is that we are far more likely to see a light skinned woman representing Black women, no matter what kind of media that we look at.  When dark skinned women do appear, that are far more likely to be exoticicized, constructed as violent, angry or decidedly unwomanly.  As the documentary Dark Girls reveals, these messages have been internalized to the point that many Black people find dark skinned women ugly and look upon it as a curse.  It is not uncommon for children growing the same household who have different hued skins to experience radically different treatment based on favoring of light skin.


The role that Thandie Newton is historically based and as the petition states, the Igbo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria.  Would it have been that impossible to find a Nigerian actress, especially with the rise in Nigerian cinema?  Is it really responsible movie making to assume that one version of Blackness can fill the role of another?  Can we really ignore the history of hueism in their choice to cast Newton?

There has been a lot of talk in the media with the release of Red Tails, and Red Hook Summer, about the difficulty get Black films made. We know that Danny Glover has bee struggling to get a movie made about Haitian Toussaint Louverture with little success. There is a tendency to believe that we should be grateful for any representation and not only support these films but actively promote them. The problem is always framed as a choice between a movie like Red Tails, or some coonery produced by Tyler Perry.  This obscures the work done by independent Black film makers. 

Hueism continues to be a problem, because we have internalized the ideals of Whiteness.  As wonderful as Thandie Newton is, she is not Igbo, and she is not dark skinned.  Saying so does not lessen her ability as an actress, or detract from her as a person.  If we are to uplift our race, it seems to me that pushing the light skinned before the dark skinned very much participates in the politics of hueism and allows a vision of us to be perpetuated that is not accurate.  If the medium is the message then we need to control the medium to positively effect discourse.  Not only must our stories be told, they must be an accurate reflection of who we are as a people. 

Amongst the first Blacks to pull themselves out of poverty were light skinned people, and they quickly became the elite of the Black community.  Look back through some of the images from the earliest Black sororities, and you will see the truth in this.  There are families who won't even inter marry with dark skinned people to this day.  Perpetuating the myth that light is right, creates a hierarchy within our own communities, and to see it played out in film, only serves to embolden the idea that the closer one is to White, the more valuable one is. 

The few roles that are open for Black women are often taken by light skinned women. Hollywood sees no problem with this because  it allows them to claim Black representation while denying that they are still actively shifting and constructing what it means to be Black with their choices. We have to stop being happy to just see a Black face and consider what this face means.