Do you remember the film “Concussion”, where Will Smith plays a Nigerian doctor? From an American perspective, it was a triumph for representation in film: an educated Black guy against the world, portrayed by one of Hollywood’s finest with respect and finesse.
Not so much from a Nigerian point of view.
(Say WHAT?) If you just google the Nigerian reaction to Concussion, you’ll see a lot of discussion around Smith’s accent. And if you take the time to look into Nigerian websites, or talk with Nigerian people, you’ll see the problem runs deeper than that.
People were unhappy with Smith for his accent, yes–because it was a South African accent, and a stereotypical “African” accent, rather than a true Nigerian accent. This was a problem for many Africans, who’ve grown used to (and tired of) American Hollywood assuming every African is the same.
“I’ve had people ask me if I ride a Zebra to school.” “People are surprised that my family speaks English.” Etc. Other students I’ve met, through college and up into the medical profession, deal with constant stereotypes of poverty and corruption. And it’s not just the side-effect of racism: there are well-meaning, intelligent people who kinda slip into this view, too. Watch Henry Louis’ Gates prominent documentary, in which he travels throughout Mid-Africa to find his ancestry and forgive the tribes that sold his ancestors into slavery. It’s a smart documentary, and Gates is a famous African History professor for good reason–I give him double-respect points. However, he promotes a viewpoint known as pan-Africanism: the belief, essentially, that all Black peoples are connected by universal similarities beyond skin color that make them essentially different from other humans.
On the one hand, this is a beautiful way to create synergy and cooperation among Black people all over the world, and it deserves recognition and consideration. On the other hand, this belief has also been taken to say that all Black peoples are essentially the same.
At one point in the documentary, Gates literally tells a dark-skinned African who identifies as Arab that he’s not Arab–in the US, he’s “just Black.” The Sudanese guy looks at him like, “uh, okay…”
And you can kind of get that vibe from a lot of Africans looking at us. “Uh…okay, no, I am Sudanese, or Nigerian, or Liberian; I have my own unique culture, and it’s different from the cultures around it.” For them, there’s no such thing as “just Black.” To them, Black is the default, not white, so there’s no reason for them to see a “just Black”; that’s about as besides the point as, “no, you’re not Chinese, you’re just human.” The diversity of Africa is stunning. People from different tribal groups can tell each other apart just by looking at each others’ build and mannerisms–much in the way, incidentally, that Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese people can tell each other apart.
I feel like that’s where the lightbulb clicks for me. “Oooh…Nigerians get offended when we think they’re South Africans, just like how I might smirk if someone thinks my Japanese family member is Chinese.” It’s not about denying pan-Africanism. It’s about this subtle idea that we’re all the same.
Obviously, we shouldn’t get too sensitive about well-meaning mistakes–but in a film with millions of dollars to spend, shouldn’t we expect more thorough research? It becomes less of a “well-meaning mistake” when we see Will Smith actually making fun of his “Nigerian” accent on Youtube. He’s a great actor, and again, someone else who gets double, maybe even triple respect points from me. I highly doubt he gets up in the morning and says, “bwahahaha how can I ruin Nigerian identity today bwahahaha,” so I don’t intend to vilify the guy, or his director, or his producer.
I do, however, intend to learn from the perspectives of the unhappy Nigerians, and remember that not all African people groups are the same, or even speak the same way.
I also intend to be more careful with casting choices. Did you know there was an actual Nigerian guy in the film–an A-lister who grew up speaking with a Nigerian accent, has two Nigerian parents, and has family in Nigeria? An actual Nigerian in Hollywood, wow. Some people are wondering why Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje didn’t get cast as the doctor.
We could speculate forever about Will Smith’s lighter skin, or the blend of whiteness in African American heritage, or the America-centrist attitude of Hollywood–or about how much more money a film with Will Smith will make, because we all love him and he’s an amazing actor, and quite frankly we haven’t all heard of the other guy. I don’t know. I feel like all these kinds of speculation can become hurtful assumptions: unlike most Democrats and Republicans (jab jab wink wink), I truly believe the majority of people I disagree with put their pants on in the morning like I do, with good intentions and evil intermingled in humannness. I don’t believe in cackling supervillains. Quite frankly, I don’t think the casting director really knew better.
But I do know better, and I think in the future we can all know better.
When you cast people of various ethnicities in your film, how much care do you take to research, first? How much do you worry about authenticity? If you do cast someone outside of a people group to play a person inside that people group (eg, a British Black guy to play a Scandinavian god, or Will Smith to play a Nigerian Doctor = P), how much do you coach that person to research the role?
Obviously, authenticity in a superhero film is less important than in a film based on real life, and cross-ethnicity casting can create great opportunities for underrepresented minorities in film. No beef with Black Heimdall or Black Spiderman. And, for the record, I think poor Zoe Saldana got really unfairly pummeled for her light skin when she played Nina Simone (although there’s no denying we need to change the lack of darker representation in Hollywood beauty–major, big issue convo later). But in Concussion‘s case, it would’ve been much more respectful to cast a Nigerian lead, or at the very least require Smith to study Nigeria well before filming. Or, to make a broader point, when we consider something a progressive triumph in the US, we need to consider other perspectives, outside the US, as well.
So that’s kind of the casting philosophy we are taking into I’m Having an Affair With My Wife!
We’re looking specifically for a Korean-American male lead, and if Samantha does end up casting an Asian-American of another ethnicity, that guy will do his homework. We’re also looking for an older Korean-American couple with authentic accents. When those official casting calls go out, be sure to let us know if you know someone. I guess it’s not such a big deal for us as it is for Concussion, since we’re not telling the groundbreaking tale of a healthcare revolution, but hey. We’re paying attention.
Thanks for paying attention with us.
Jen Finelli is a professional scifi writer who has no business talking about representation in film but does so anyway because she’s a jerk like that. You can get her professional fiction writing at byjenfinelli.com, and her free stuff at petrepan.blogspot.com.
Photo Credit: The Codpast