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Tue, 12 Nov 2019 06:37 GMT

Controversy Sparks Over Dakota Fanning's New Film ‘Sweetness in the Belly’

Media & Culture

Hannah Bardsley - 7DNews London

Mon, 09 Sep 2019 08:46 GMT

Actress Dakota Fanning has faced backlash and controversy following the announcement of her latest film.

‘Sweetness in the Belly’ will premiere at the Toronto Film festival. Directed by Zeresenay Behane Mehari, the film is based on the book of the same name written by Canadian author Camilla Gibb in 2005.

The story, about a young refugee living in England is due to hit cinemas late 2019 but has already garnered much controversy. 

Fanning, well known for her role as a Princess Aurora in the Disney film ‘Maleficent’, plays a young refugee from Ethiopia, now living in England. If you haven’t started to cotton on to where people may be taking offence, I will give you a moment.

The original outpouring of objections came against the description of Fanning’s character. The first look was realised by Deadline with the statement that the actress played a “white Ethiopian Muslim refugee.” 

Storyteller Taz Ahmed took to Twitter to express her disapproval. She said, “LOL HOLLYWOOD REALLY TRYING TO BE INCLUSIVE BUT KEEP THEIR WHITE STARS. This is not satire. I repeat. Not satire. Dakota Fanning plays a white, Muslim, Ethiopian refugee.”

The actress did not stay silent on the matter and as quickly took to Instagram to explain further. She said, “Just to clarify. In the new film I am part of, ‘Sweetness in the Belly’, 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, Lily, journeys to Ethiopia and is caught in the outbreak of a civil war. She is subsequently sent “home” to England, a place she is from but has never known. 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.”

This seemed to have some effect on quelling the outrage expressed but still leaves much room for discussion.

While some called Deadline’s announcement unclear, others blamed the news site. Stating that it was a direct attempt to create controversy and create a buzz around the film. 

Twitter user Ken Sandoval said, “Dakota Fanning is playing a British woman who was raised in Ethiopia, in a film directed by an Ethiopian director. This headline is purposefully poorly written to spark controversy.”

Others share a similar sentiment with Taz Ahmed. While the nature of Dakota Fanning’s character is now fully understood and less objectionable, the story that Hollywood has chosen to tell is one that lacks understanding of the current social climate and current calls for diversity. 

While the story promises to be fascinating and the film seems to be well-made and well-acted there are questions as to whether it was necessary to create a refugee film with a white woman at the centre.

Not only does it not fully capture the experience of most refugees, it also does little to promote further diversity in the film industry. While Dakota’s statement that the film features many Ethiopian women sounds commendable, it also does not acknowledge that in the British, American and Canadian film industries the majority of principle roles are given to white actors. While films that claim diversity often do so by giving only the secondary roles to women and men of colour.

It is not the casting of Dakota Fanning in the lead role of this film adaption ‘Sweetness of the Belly’ that is the issue. Instead it is the fact that the film industry seems insistent on creating stories that place white actors, characters and lives at the forefront of the human experience.

Surely a better way to show the complexities and difficulties of the refugee experience is to tell the stories of actual refugees, or stories based on their experiences as a whole. Rather than fictional tales that revolve around European characters.

The film is perhaps tone deaf. In another world where there was not a continuous search for diversity and representation, this film would be more than welcome. In fact, there appears to be much good in a film that actively points out the differences in the treatment of refugees depending entirely on their skin colour and culture. For this reason, the film should probably not be missed.

But do more films like this need to be made? Perhaps we should tell the stories of real refugees first.

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