Dakota Fanning found herself in a controversial position for her upcoming movie, Sweetness in the Belly, in which she plays a Muslim woman raised in Africa. The actress did her best to clear up an essential misunderstanding about the role—but the whole affair still brought to the surface, yet again, many issues with the film industry as a whole.
It all started with a tweet by Deadline saying that “‘Sweetness In The Belly’: First Clip Of Dakota Fanning As A White Ethiopian Muslim In Refugee Drama-Romance – Toronto”
The tweet soon exploded into a veritable controversy focusing on the seemingly poor decision to cast a white person for the role of an Ethiopian Muslim woman. And upsetting though the thought of the news is, it’s also hardly surprising given Hollywood’s terrible track record for such things (Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, anyone?) And people clearly were upset, with a backlash that ranged from disbelief to utter indignation.
But Fanning soon jumped in to clarify the situation and defuse a wave of resentment that could’ve irreparably damaged her new movie. On Wednesday night, Fanning posted a text on Instagram that read,
“Just to clarify. In the new film … 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. She is subsequently sent “home” to England, a place she is from but has never known.”
Here’s the full response:
Deadline also tweeted a correction to their earlier post, trying to set things straight.
Still, not everyone was happy after the clarification.
The affair’s morality (or lack thereof)
Leaving the particular misunderstanding aside, whitewashing is truly a problem in industries so big that they have a responsibility towards a global—rather than just local—audience. Representation is important, and having white people play non-white roles is as obsolete in today’s world as having male actors playing women—a practice that was surprisingly common a few centuries back.
But then you have people like Scarlett Johansson, who in an interview with As If magazine earlier this year outright argued that she should be able to play anyone she wants. “You know, as an actor, I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job,” the actress said. “I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons. Yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions.”
But it’s certainly not that simple. While it may be true that, in an ideal world, anyone should be able to play any role whatsoever (because there would be no social strife or a regrettable history), ours is far from an ideal world. Art does not happen in a vacuum, and we must be extremely aware of this fact.
Comments like Johansson’s are insensitive precisely because of this lack of awareness—she would have art as an ideal abstraction completely separated from a world riddled with social inequality, political unfairness, and historical nuances; and that simply cannot happen. Whether that makes you or anyone else uncomfortable is completely irrelevant to that point.
In this sense, sentiments like the ones expressed in the latter tweets also point to an important issue. Since representation is important, we should not only have the proper social groups play their corresponding roles, but Hollywood as an industry should seek to tell more diverse stories as well. Again, Hollywood has become a global industry, which gives it global responsibilities. It’s time that it acts accordingly.
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