Will ‘Americanah’ be another Hollywood flop in portraying its Nigerian characters?

In 2014, about a year after it was published, Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel which won the National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, and remains one of her most seminal works (not that all her works aren’t), was optioned by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. At the time, it was set to be made into a feature film with her playing Ifemelu and David Oyelowo, her love interest, Obinze, both of whom the story basically revolve around.

Fast forward to 2018, Lupita announced that Americanah would no longer be made into a feature film but a mini-series, which made the long-awaited on-screen adaptation of a book as thematically expansive as Americanah even more exciting. And now, after almost five years of waiting, Americanah is finally getting the screen time it deserves, with HBO ordering a ten-episode limited series which will be written plus executive produced by Danai Gurira with Lupita Nyong’o playing Ifemelu, still.

Americanah is one of the most excitingly indelible works I have ever read, made more so by its utterly dynamic and humane main character Ifemelu and Chimamanda’s masterfully precise, lush and heart-wrenching prose, so this recent development is nothing but a dream come true for fans of the book and Chimamanda’s culturally impactful works.

Amidst the circulation of this exciting news and in considering its immeasurable aesthetic, social and political possibilities in furthering conversations around race, feminism, identity, culture shock, cultural assimilation, love stoppered by the clinical mandates of borders and boundaries both state-sanctioned and guilt fueled, all of which are still persistently constant today, I am however worried about Lupita playing Ifemelu. I am worried that like so many, this would be another failed attempt by Hollywood actors to woefully perform Nigerian-ness, from accents to mannerisms, and all sorts of things that Nigerians absolutely don’t do.

This worry isn’t unfounded, as Hollywood has an embarrassing track record of lazily representing Nigeria, reflected not only through often racist references but most crucially through its casting decisions, in form of actors who portray completely contrived ideas of what it’s like to talk or act like a Nigerian.

Movies like Concussion, Half Of A Yellow Sun, Shelter and shows like Turn Up Charlie amongst many others are evidence of this and as many would agree, there is something immensely embarrassing about seeing a ridiculously caricatured and ultimately irritating portrayal of one’s identity, language, and lingo on a global platform, when it could have been better done, if only casting decisions pivoted towards originality and organically present authenticity were made.

Perhaps and quite likely the base of this lazy and hegemonic assigning of African/Nigerian roles to black Hollywood actors, who have failed serially in properly representing whatever specific African identity they have to don, (let’s not even talk about those disrespectfully vague African characters) is rooted in the neglect of Africa’s multilayered body, its quickly evolving sense of identity, innovations, talents, breakthroughs and yes, problems. The conversation around not just representation, but the accurate execution of said representation, don’t often have a strong foothold when it comes to the diverse identities of Africans. This oversight is not only damaging in terms of an already poor perception but ruins the art in question.

While not everyone is concerned about this possible wreck, with many blaming homegrown filmmakers for not seeing the potential in Americanah early enough, (although this isn’t an indication that the adaptation would live up to the cultural promise expected from a Nigerian producer, see Half of a Yellow Sun), I am hopeful this stance is a genuine trust in Lupita Nyong’o’s capabilities to bring Ifemelu to life and not an apathy towards asking for the things we deserve. Ifemelu in Americanah is at the heart of the story, is in many ways the story, and through her quirky, observational messiness, mirrors a lot of who we are and who we aspire to be, and so she is very important to this adaptation.

I respect Lupita Nyong’o’s craft and I am confident she would bring her dynamic strength to play to this project if she intends to go ahead and play Ifemelu, although I really do hope she doesn’t. Aside from not being able to imagine her as Ifemelu (for purely sentimental reasons I admit), what would it mean to have a Nigerian actress who can actually speak Igbo without viewers hoping she doesn’t mangle a Kedu or over-exaggerate on certain mannerisms? How fresh would it be to have Nigerians play and portray less evidently forced Nigerian-ness onscreen? The new CBS sitcom BobHeartAbishola is an excellent example and for Hollywood, a step in the right direction towards proper representation. This show promises a look into the beauty that can be found when diversity is originally curated and spotlighted.

Also, how empowering would it be for the Nigerian who would get to play Ifemelu and for Nigerians who will see this happen? In his review of Half of a Yellow Sun, culture critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo writes “Cinema is a representation of its people and as a commercial enterprise it caters to the predilections of its major demographic.” he continues “There is nothing quite as empowering as seeing an image of oneself blowing things up in action movies, nothing as certain to provoke empathy as your cinema avatar weeping, nothing quite as aphrodisiacal as watching one of yours get the girl.”

A few things to consider though, for all the proper representation one might seek to happen, there is the unyielding place of power; of who gets to tell the story, how it gets told, for whom the story is being told, the consequences that come behind a mangled narrative or lack thereof, and in the case of Nigerian stories we are often so grateful our stories have found their ways into hallowed global mediums, which might make dissection and critique seem like ingratitude depending on who you ask.

I am interested and perhaps guilelessly hopeful in Ifemelu being thoroughly brought to life, fleshed out in all of her quirky messiness in this new development because she is crucial to the story, in more ways than one she is the story and like many, I think she mirrors so much of who we are and who we hope to be. I am also earnestly looking forward to Nigerian filmmakers picking up more Nigerian books and turning them into movies as they tend to have stronger, more original stories and boast of the possibility to appeal to wider audiences thus driving sales and the industry’s presently unflattering profile.

In 2019 alone, Hollywood is set to and has already churned out over 32 movies adapted from books, comics, journalistic pieces, and other literary materials, something that would be great in the Nigerian film industry considering the boom of groundbreaking works by Nigerian writer in recent times.

Right now though, the adaptation of Americanah is still early on as far as we all know and perhaps there might be drastic changes to the story we are familiar with or a rendition of the beautifully complicated and multilayered story we look forward to, whichever way this production ends up taking, I hope it retains the timeless aesthetic weight that has made the book ever so celebrated and turned to in some of today’s most topical and personal colloquy, in the stead of a capitalist-centered reproduction that like Half of a Yellow Sun (the movie) and countless other movies adapted from books, loses another chance to reintroduce a great story to its audience, including and especially the people from which the story births from.

 

Nelson C.J is a writer of fiction, culture and identity related pieces. His works can be found in AfroPunk, Ambit Magazine, Ake Review, Brittle Paper and a few other spaces.

 

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