Objection! 6 and a half reasons a Nigerian actress should be lead in the Chimamanda film

by Wilfred Okiche

Great news filtered in with the announcement of a major motion picture adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s award winning sophomore novel, ‘Half of a yellow sun’ by the respected film maker, Biyi Bandele. This was a chance to tell our story from our perspective, in a different medium. After all, we had been quick to accuse Hollywood-sponsored offerings like ‘The last king of Scotland’ and ‘Hotel Rwanda’ of pandering to western sensibilities and the less said about Bruce Willis’ ‘Tears of the sun’, the better.

The sweet taste of impending victory soon turned sour however with the casting of the London born actress, Thandie Newton in the lead role of Olanna. While Newton’s mother hails from Mozambique and the actress is as dark-skinned as she should be (her father is British), her casting is terrible news and does not bode well for an industry that is widely regarded as taking baby steps towards retrieving it’s sanity.

Someone thinks there’s no big deal about that (see the piece here). Well, I certainly don’t agree! The roles of Olanna and her sister, Kainene should have been given to any of the numerous starlets with Nigerian heritage – and there is no shortage of them. Here are seven reasons why. And a half extra, just for good measure.

A good product sells itself

The author of the previous post, in elucidating his point (read the post here) explains that money is the big issue here and I quite agree. While Bandele might not be asking for a budget James Cameron would demandhe, his needs still outweigh the biggest Nollywood attempts at big budget. Raising the money will be difficult but not impossible. If foreign backers do not get to hand him the cash he needs pre-production, he might have to make a deserving picture and then do the film festival circuit, hoping some studio head picks it up. The point here is to make a decent picture- and lord knows Bandele has peerless source material. This year’s Oscar frontrunner,’ The Artist’ was made entirely in France, with an unknown cast, Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, ‘In the land of blood and honey’ was made with local actors and we all remember ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Why can’t those rules apply here? Also a substantial portion of the film’s budget would have to go into paying star salaries of Thandie Newton, Dominic Cooper and Chiewetel Ejiofor. The producers can cut costs and hire a Genevieve or a Stephanie, their biggest paydays surely cannot touch even a Thandie Newton working for scale.

Hello, there is an audience

Every film maker wants the widest audience for his film but audiences tend to gravitate towards movies that have some quality. Americans may not pay to see an Omotola but by God, they will pay to see a good movie with great reviews, it does not matter who is headlining, again the recent success of ‘The Artist’ proves this. For every Meryl Streep cast in ‘The Iron Lady’, there has been a Helen Mirren for ‘The Queen’ (and she got the Oscar to boot!)

We have work to do? Who doesn’t?

The only reason our stars have not proved themselves is a desperate lack of opportunities and not because they are incapable of playing in the big leagues. Accusing them of not being on top of their game is strictly unfair. Genevieve has stated in an interview with Y! that she is not satisfied with the roles she has played. If she has been typecast, then it is because Nollywood has no idea what to do with her. In the hands of a capable director however, the story can be different, we all saw her deep perfomance of the defiled bride in last year’s ‘Tango with me’. Funke Akindele has been known to go the extra mile in delivering her roles (Omo Ghetto, Maami) and there is no reason to suggest these ladies cannot shine on wider platforms. They just need the proper motivation.  France’s Marion Cotillard has been cast in high profile roles since her award winning turn as Edith Paif, her accent is unmistakable and it hasn’t stopped the job offers ditto, Penelope Cruz.

All kinds of actors have won Oscars

There is a reason all manner of actors have won Academy awards. Enduring legends like Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster have shared the stage with once-in-a-lifetime surprises like Sandra Bullock and Catherine- Zeta Jones. It’s not magic, these so-called lesser talent were offered change of pace roles in decent movies and they put in the necessary work required.

Of course our stars are ready to audition

Patience Ozokwor and Kanayo O. Kanayo did, didn’t they? When it comes to getting that role-of-a-lifetime  (and make no mistakes, this could be one ) actors have been known to check their egos at the door. It has been documented that the late great Marlon Brando tested for his iconic godfather role (though they did not call it an audition) and if it will take a screen test to get that Kainene or Olanna role, trust that these guys will audition. They have no choice.

Where is the A-list?

Without taking anything away from Ms Newton’s stellar career, we have to ask ourselves this question, are these guys really serious? If Bandele and his team wanted an A-list that will get him funding and sell tickets, where are the Halle Berrys? or the Angela Bassets? Newton has been in good movies like ‘Crash’ and ‘For Colored girls’ but she is not exactly capable of setting the box office alight on opening weekend in any country of the world even though she is a name and brings a recognizable face to the mix. Other Nigerian born actresses like Vanity Fair cover girl, Pero Oduye, Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo, Annie Ilonzeh, Carmen Ejogo currently plying their trades in Hollywood could have brought more credibility to the character than a Newton who is unaware of the pressure she now faces.

It is reasons like these that suggest why Nigerian actresses should have been cast and not for lazy offerings such as  skin colour or nationality, though proponents of these make a pretty good defence, especially when they are making the loudest noise.