American actress Dakota Fanning's role in the new film Sweetness in the Belly has stirred confusion among social media users, as it features her playing a Muslim refugee in Ethiopia.
Based on the novel of the same name by writer Camilla Gibb, the film will premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 7.
Earlier this week, in the lead-up to the film's release, online magazine Deadline Hollywood shared a clip from the film under a headline that presented Fanning's character as a "white Ethiopian Muslim." The clip was met with heavy backlash online, with people fearing the film would whitewash the Muslim refugee experience, prompting Fanning to respond to the allegations and clarify what her role actually entails.
In Sweetness in the Belly, Fanning stars as Lilly Abdal, a Muslim nurse who was born to - and abandoned by - British parents who moved to Ethiopia. She later flees the civil war and escapes as a refugee to Britain, where she helps fellow immigrants and refugees reunite with their families.
After Deadline Hollywood published its article, the prospects of Fanning playing a "white Ethiopian Muslim" raised eyebrows online, with people questioning the "white Ethiopian" aspect and others criticizing the fact that Fanning was cast to portray a Muslim woman. This comes as many Western productions attempting to depict the experiences of Muslims, and minorities in general, have been accused of being tone-deaf and spreading inaccuracies.
Deadline Hollywood has since updated its headline and changed the description of Fanning's role to "Brit raised Muslim in Africa."
"I beg your pardon?"
In response to the negative feedback, Fanning took to Instagram to set the facts straight, explaining that she doesn't play an Ethiopian woman but rather a British woman who was raised as a Muslim in Africa. She also emphasized that the film was shot partly in Ethiopia and directed by Ethiopian director Zeresenay Mehari, adding that it features many Ethiopian women.
"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," she wrote.
Despite the clarification, some critics still had their doubts about the film, particularly since it focuses on a white female protagonist in Africa, rather than the locals. This, as minorities and people of color, seem to exclusively appear in Hollywood productions in relation to white lead characters.
"Making a movie about Ethiopia that still centers on a white female lead just seems dense given the lack of women of color in Hollywood's narratives. Instead of creating a story around actual Africans, Sweetness In the Belly's premise proves yet again Hollywood's tendency to go above and beyond in order to center white actors," writes Vice's Bettina Makalintal.
"Despite Fanning's acknowledgment of the movie's 'many Ethiopian women,' it must still be sold with Fanning as its leading face," Makalintal explains.
Along the same lines, one social media user wrote, "How do they always make stories about brown and black people wrapped up in the candy of the central protagonist who's white?"