The online mob of commentariats have again got their high-handed politically correct digits in a twist over the ongoing storm concerning white actors performing roles that they deem should be played by non-whites. In August, Scarlett Johansson got into hot water when she proclaimed that an actor should be allowed to play any person, ‘because that is my job and the requirements of my job’.
This time it is the 25 year old actor Dakota Fanning who’s being dragged over the coals when the first clip of her role in Sweetness In the Belly was released to coincide with its screening at the Toronto Film Festival. The easily offended immediately went online to attack her role of a Muslim woman in a movie said to be about ‘A White Ethiopian Muslim in Refugee Drama-Romance’ .
Cultural and ethnic representation have dominated debates in cinema and television in recent years. In 2017 the talented Riz Ahmed called for quotas of non-white actors in the media industry and the current outcry about Fanning’s role as a Muslim is part of a wider response to the so-called ‘whitewashing’ in art and entertainment.
However, the hostile response to the casting of Fanning in this movie is wrong on so many levels. The movie is based on a 2005 novel of the same name, written by the English-born Canadian writer Camilla Gibb. The novel was favourably received across the world, a reviewer in Indonesia wrote that “Although written by a non-Muslim, the portrait of Islam in Sweetness in the Belly is superbly nuanced and feels real” but the Chinese whispers of social media were quick to misrepresent the narrative claiming that Fanning had stolen the role from an Ethiopian female Muslim actor. Even when it was clarified by Fanning that “I do not play an Ethiopian woman. I play a British woman abandoned by her parents at seven years old in Africa and raised Muslim. My character, Lilly, journeys to Ethiopia and is caught up in the breakout of civil war”, the social media justice warriors still shrilly lambasted the decision with accusations such as “the premise of the book (white girl raised in Ethiopia) is colonialist as hell. It’s Dances with Wolves but for Ethiopian Muslims. fuck that noise.” Those who reasonably defend the movie and lead cast are, in effect, told to STFU for being white.
Polarising opinion and culture on account of race, religion and ethnicity is alienating to meaningful collaboration and exchange. There is more to this film than meets the black and white world of those offended who have lost all sense of nuance in the debate. By focusing on Dakota Fanning, who by the way is a very good actor, the fact that Sweetness in the Belly is directed by a young black Ethiopian film director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari who grew up in Ethiopia during the ‘communist dictatorship’ is ironically overlooked and completely lost in the media cacophony. This is the third film he has directed since his debut Difret in 2014. Why isn’t there a focus on the whole ensemble, a multiracial team, whose efforts are as vital as the Hollywood star in the making of this intriguing film? Because that would be a story too complex to contain in 280 character outrages.
The politically correct online mob against this movie is part of a wider community creating a climate of greater self-censorship and racial policing in culture, as I have written elsewhere. It is important to challenge these opinions as they are not just twitterstorms in a teacup. The reality is that the cultural establishment starts to listen to them and cultural engineering begins. While it is absolutely right that new stories should be told and presented, this should not be at the expense of good stories being erased and lost. I welcome this movie and look forward to it when it is released in the UK.
Manick Govinda is an independent arts consultant, artists mentor and writer. Follow his writings here.