Dakota Fanning Responded to Outrage Over Her Role as a White Muslim Refugee
But not everyone is satisfied.
Twitter users were upset when they got wind of Dakota Fanning's new movie, Sweetness in the Belly. Early reports from Deadline stated that she'd been cast to play a "white Ethiopian Muslim" refugee. Critics came forward, saying that she had taken the role from what should have been a Black Ethiopian actress, but People reports that Fanning explained everything on Instagram and offered some insight into her character in the film and how the movie celebrates Ethiopian people and culture.
Sportswriter Muhammad Butt was one of the first people to call Fanning out, writing, "So many talented Muslim actors out there and you cast … Dakota Fanning????????????????? And to play an ETHIOPIAN??????????? I BEG YOUR PARDON???????????"
In a long note posted to her Story, Fanning said that her character is actually a "British woman abandoned by her parents" and "raised Muslim." The movie is based on the 2005 fiction book of the same name, written by Camilla Gibb.
"Just to clarify. In the new film I'm a part of, Sweetness in the Belly, I do not play an Ethiopian woman," Fanning wrote. "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."
Twitter user Maia Dunphy came to Fanning's defense after the news broke, saying that anyone familiar with the source material would have known that the role was never meant for a Black actor. According to Vice, Deadline changed its headline to read "Brit raised Muslim in Africa."
Fanning's note also clarified the role that Ethiopian filmmakers and actors played in the production. The director, Zeresenay Mehari, is Ethiopian, she wrote, adding that many of the actors in the film are Ethiopian as well.
"This film was partly made in Ethiopia, is directed by an Ethiopian man and features many Ethiopian women," Fanning wrote. "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."
Not everyone was satisfied with her note, however. Vice adds that while Sweetness in the Belly is a movie about Ethiopia, it still centers around a white character, which the site notes seems out of touch with the current climate in Hollywood. Using data culled from USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Vice reported that 2018 was "a 12-year high point for the number of Black and Asian characters in speaking roles."
While that's a major improvement, there's still a lack of opportunities for female actors of color. Making a movie that addresses an African issue is such a rarity, writer Bettina Makalintal explains, that studios feel the need to center narratives around white people to make stories appeal to audiences. That's the real problem — and one that won't get fixed with an Instagram note.