American actress Dakota Fanning is facing backlash for playing the character of a white Muslim refugee raised in Ethiopia. In a new film titled Sweetness In The Belly, the 25-year-old actress stars as Lilly Abdal, a British orphan who is raised in Morocco and later travels to Ethiopia — prior to finally fleeing to England amid the civil war in the ’70s. There, she continues to live amongst London’s Muslim immigrant community while attempting to reunite people with their scattered families.
The first clip of the film released on Wednesday caused mass social media outrage with allegations of whitewashing, and users saying that the role should have either been played by a woman of color or someone with experience of being a refugee, and not by a Caucasian woman such as Fanning.
Negative reactions on Twitter included one user writing, “Dakota Fanning plays “Ethiopian Muslim” and Lena Dunham writes a script about Syrian refugee in 2019 and Hollywood thinks it’s okay.”Another added: “‘So many talented Muslim actors out there and you cast… Dakota Fanning? and to play an ETHIOPIAN? I BEG YOUR PARDON?”
Dakota Fanning plays “Ethiopian Muslim” and Lena Dunham writes a script about Syrian refugee in 2019 and Hollywood thinks it’s okay. https://t.co/Dj60IYAOQt
— T a z e e n (@tazeen) September 5, 2019
Fanning responded the backlash, defending the casting on social media as she wrote, “Just to clarify. In the new film I’m 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, 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.”
“Based on a book by Camilla Gibb, this film was partly made in Ethiopia, is directed by an Ethiopian man (Zeresenay Berhane Mehari ) and features many Ethiopian women. It was a great privilege to be part of telling this story.”
She added: “It was a great privilege to be 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.”
The drama additionally stars Indian-American actor Kunal Nayyar of TV series The Bing Bang Theory fame, Nigerian-born British and Bafta-winning actress Wunmi Mosaku, as well as American actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II known for his role in Aquaman.
Sweetness In The Belly is an adaptation of Camilla Gibb’s 2005 novel of the same name and will have its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.