diversity in film

The first time I saw a woman who looked like me in media, it was in a Toronto newspaper, and her name was Ilwad Elman, an activist not too much older than I. She was Canadian, Somali, and a hijab-wearing woman, just like me. A promoter of peace and education, and a constant advocate against gender-based violence- Ilwad is everything I had wanted to be. Being a Somali woman, I am used to being spoken about, not being spoken with. Ilhan represented not just my face, but my voice as well.

Now, another prominent Somali activist is getting deserved attention. Ifrah Ahmed is an Irish-Somali woman, a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation, an advisor to the Somali Prime Minister, and an all-around role model. Now, her story will be shared with millions as its planned to hit the big screen in the fall of next year. The movie will star Somali actor Barkhad Abdi, and Somali icon Maryam Murals. The lead, however, will be played by How To Get Away With Murder star Aja Naomi King. Now, as a black woman, I am incredibly proud of this lineup. But having King play Ifrah Ahmed is problematic.

In order to understand the frustration of many Somali people with the casting of King in this film, we need to recognize that this is a part of a bigger pattern. Black actors audition and are given roles for black characters, without any concern for how the stories vary. Yes, actors are trained to play people they are not, but when it comes to stories based on real-life people, there must be a consideration for the depth of the characters, and what faces are used to market their stories. With movies like 12 Years A Slave and Selma (stories that depict the struggles of a specific category of black person), you have black Brits in the lead roles, playing African Americans- and getting huge buzz and praise for it. This might be the most concerning part about all of this. Black people of different experiences playing others, and then being rewarded for it. What message does that send? Are there no African Americans to tell African American stories? Are there no Black Muslim Women to tell their own stories? Now, I’m not saying the actors in the movies I mentioned did not have epic performances, but imagine what an African American actor could have done with the role of an enslaved black person, or Dr. King?

Aja Naomi King is an African American actress, and she will be playing an Irish-Somali immigrant woman, who is Muslim and wears the hijab. Both King and Ahmed happen to be black women, but that’s where the similarities stop. Having one play the other invites the idea that any black woman can play any black woman, which simply isn’t true. Black women are not interchangeable. The idea that one black woman can play another, regardless of similarities, is offensive. Painting all black women with the same brush, and implying that they all share experiences is willfully ignorant at best. For example, a queer black woman’s experiences will differ from those of a straight black woman, and vice versa. Understanding these layers and differences not only respects black women, but acknowledges their diverse existence. Having a black woman, play another black woman with different experiences erases the experiences (intentionally or not) of one of these women. When you attempt to replace one black woman with another, you are throwing aside the fact that there are layers to black women, experiences that differ. Black women are dimensional and should be treated as such.

We challenge Hollywood to bring in diversity, a way to represent the stories of the people we never hear, and then when they announce the cast, the lead is being played by someone else. This sick joke of promising black people they’ll see themselves on screen, and then bringing an outsider to become the messenger of their stories is the definition of what it means to be black and/or tell black stories.

The blame here is not on Aja Naomi King, and to place it on her only keeps the blame from going where it should be: on casting directors and producers. Checking “black” and “woman” off on the metaphorical yet frighteningly real “Diversity Checklist” cannot be the way we cast black actors. Being “black” should not be a one-shot requirement, it must become a gateway to acknowledging the other layers that black people come in, especially when telling very real stories about very real people. Demanding on-screen representation isn’t enough. We must demand accurate representation from executives. More diverse black faces on-screen to represent the many diverse black faces in real life shouldn’t be an anomaly. If we want true authentic black stories to be heard, it must become the norm.

Furqan is the web editor at Teen Eye

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Illustration: Mo Kerwin