Dakota Fanning’s role in ‘Sweetness in the Belly’ sparks debate on whitewashed African stories

The debut of the trailer for a film based on a critically acclaimed novel starring former child actress Dakota Fanning as a “white Ethiopian Muslim” shook up social media Wednesday.

The film based on the 2007 novel Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb met backlash on Twitter where users described their disgust for an African story being told from a white perspective. It reflects a long history in Hollywood of putting a white actress as the star in an African story, but the backlash may also hurt a black-directed project.

Many Twitter users questioned how an Ethiopian Muslim woman is being portrayed by a white blonde actress, but it appeared the majority of the responders may not have been aware of the novel.

In the publisher Penguin Random House’s summary of the book, the story has the main character, Lilly, become orphaned by her parents’ murders. She is then raised in a Sufi shrine in Morocco before making a pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia (disclaimer: my paternal family’s homeland), where she not only teaches the Qur’an to children but also falls in love with a doctor. Even with sporting her hijab, her foreignness is targeted. This forces her to flee to England, where she feels like a real foreigner.

The premise has a problematic plotline that is being magnified in today’s hyper-racial atmosphere. With the book centering on a fictional white woman’s perspective of Islam in a black African country, the story could be seen as offensive with very few stories if any, especially in the Western mainstream, focusing on Ethiopian Muslim women.

The film actually has an Ethiopian director, Zeresenay Mehari. His 2015 film Difret, based on a true story, is about a young Ethiopian girl who accidentally kills her kidnapper and the lawyer defending her in the murder trial. With Angelina Jolie named as executive producer, the film can be seen on Netflix. Zeresenay stopped tweeting around the time of the promotion campaign for Difret, so there was no response from him on the social media network where his newest film was trending.

On Instagram, Dakota responded to the outrage by emphasizing her character’s British, non-native African heritage and that the film’s director is Ethiopian along with many of the characters that will revolve around her character.

“Based on a book by Camilla Gibb, this film was partly made in Ethiopia, is directed by an Ethiopian man and features many Ethiopian women,” she wrote in an Instagram story. “It was a great privilege to be a part of telling this story. The film is about what home means to people who find themselves displaced and the families and communities that they choose and that choose them.”

Hollywood has a long history of portraying African stories from a white perspective with vintage examples including Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. Though Sweetness in the Belly is more modern, it still depicts a historical event—the civil war in Ethiopia that stretched from 1974 to 1991—without a major U.S. film to tell the story of native Ethiopians during that time.

Should Dakota have been attacked for her portrayal when the Ethiopian director obviously cosigned on the representation of his culture from the perspective of a white author’s fictional work? Or did the director feel this would be an acceptable representation of Ethiopian Muslims for America to digest? The backlash has reinforced the racial divide in storytelling, especially when it comes to women: pitting white women and nonwhite women against each other over how stories should be told involving nonwhite groups.

On another note, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian female author who writes about wartime Ethiopia, comes out this month if you’re looking for a novel focusing on the East African country and its history.

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