Cynthia Erivo, And The Diaspora Wars That Threaten Her Latest Coup
The Tony-award winning actress is set to star as Harriet Tubman
As a Nigerian-American, it has been disheartening to witness how my timeline has been converted into a battleground that is still showcasing fresh blood and body parts, weeks after a well-known social media superstar and best-selling author, Luvvie Ajayi got publicly stoned by those who had waited long enough to run her out of town.
Ajayi, is also Nigerian-American, and she’s made quite the name for herself, as the authority of a culture that critics believe she’s capitalized on to further an agenda that is based on a duplicitous presentation. After the misfire of the Tevin Campbell comment, receipts were unearthed from years ago, that showcase the influencer’s penchant for slamming the tradition of HBCU’s, Kwanzaa and other precious items that the Black community holds dear.
Weeks later, and the debate rages on, as #DescendantsofSlaves, and other groups and individuals that are committed to the duty of protecting the narrative of Black Americans from being distorted and profitably brutalized by greedy and thankless Africans — go into overdrive to call out and shame those accused.
There’s even a Twitter account called “Stop Luvvie” that has been calling anyone and anything related to the somewhat silenced “professional troublemaker,” who tried but failed with her rebuttal, that didn’t even remotely tackle the complexities of her station as the Black woman who allegedly caters to mostly Black women — who trusted her voice long enough to give her a lucrative career.
To be honest, I’m not capable of dissecting whether or not Luvvie Ajayi duped her followers, but I do know that what transpired initiated a virus that is affecting those of us who came to this country to chill — and suddenly the reception has turned quite chilly, as we navigate the trials and tribulations of being labeled poachers of a culture that we don’t deserve to claim.
The argument is embedded in the fact that Africans seem to be willing to takeover a landscape, that is designed for American-born Blacks, who are descendants of slaves, and therefore have toiled all their lives to rightfully garner the level of dignity and respect that African immigrants are able to amass — based on the “superiority status” that we automatically assume.
Growing up in Nigeria, after leaving the States at the age of eight, I was aware of how White people had fucked up my people with the disease of colonialism, that still has no cure for the deadly consequences that still haunt us. I also understood the tragedy of slavery, which still torments and threatens the progress of those who represent the extended fabric of that era through the systemized version that’s just as deadly.
Moving back to the country of my heritage at such a fragile age wasn’t the best thing for me, since my accent gave me away as a foreigner, and back then only British accents were considered notable. My “Valley girl” impression didn’t score any points with the “hard to please” crowd of Nigerian youngsters, and so the alienation began.
Boarding school wasn’t much of an improvement, as my pre-teen disposition still harbored some awkwardness that made me stand out in a crowd, which allowed for jokes at my expense and the inability to foster tangible connections with my school mates.
To sum it all up — I’ve never quite belonged anywhere.
Years after I moved back to the States to pursue my college education, I was also hit with the weirdness of assimilating into a culture that was divisive. Earlier on, White people were fascinated by my name and sort of British accent, which I quickly lost, and by the time I ran away from the all-White women’s college in the all-White town — and landed in Kansas City, I was ready to discover myself through the friends I hoped to make.
I made genuine connections with mostly Black Americans, and when I go through the scope of my life thus far, there’s no doubt that in times of duress and desperation, the source of my stability still comes from those friendships.
I’m the Nigerian who fucks up the pride of how “Naija no de carry last.”
I didn’t come to America to become a medical doctor or attend an Ivy League school that will bequeath me with the lucrative titles and career trajectory that my parents can boast about. I was never the Nigerian who thought she was superior and playfully ridiculed Black Americans and their culture with my other well-accomplished comrades.
I’m the Nigerian-American who doesn’t have a lot of Nigerian friends because of the insecurity that designates me as “not worthy” based on my woefully modest achievements. And that’s definitely a scar that’s borne from the unsettled nature of how I relate to some Nigerians, that could be more my issue than theirs.
I also don’t feel like I totally belong in America, because of the weirdness of figuring out exactly where I can stake my claim without feeling like a fraud or a sellout.
But while I grapple with the inconsistencies of my identity, it’s ironic that the present climate is exposing deep wounds that won’t heal unless the dressing is potent enough to offer adequate soothing and comfort — for all sides.
Sometimes it takes a monsoon to hit hard enough to unearth buried resentment that has been festering long enough to cause that infection, and in this case Luvvie’s mishap was just what the doctor ordered.
I’m no expert when it comes to the role of an “influencer,” but I would hope that if I were ever in that position of power, I would utilize it responsibly, which means being readily transparent when the going is good and even more so when shit hits the fan.
The ultra-sensitive topic of relations between Black Americans who are #DOS and Black Americans who can travel back to their homeland whenever they’re homesick — is something that should be examined thoroughly, and without the defensiveness of those who refuse to acknowledge how they may have downplayed an issue — that’s complex enough to warrant a respectful investment.
And with the recent announcement of British-Nigerian and Tony-Award-winning (The Color Purple) actress, Cynthia Erivo, nabbing the title role in the upcoming biopic about revered American abolitionist and political activist — Harriet Tubman, there has been an expected uproar from those who are using social media platforms to voice their discontent about Erivo’s high-profile casting.
Erivo quickly posted a response on her Instagram page after a user accused her of stealing parts that should rightfully be designated to African-American actresses who aren’t British-Nigerians, and have worked hard enough to win the role of a lifetime.
“Actors are free to go where they please for their work, but I dare you to do that fully as a Black woman in the U.K. If I see it, I applaud it.” “What was for someone else was never mine in the first place. Please believe that I have turned down roles I know I have no business playing. This role is not one of them….”
“If you met me in the street and hadn’t heard me speak, would you know I was British, or would you simply see a Black woman?”
Here’s the thing, I see all sides of this stubborn equation because I’ve had some issues with casting choices that seemed quite problematic.
For instance, Will Smith playing the Nigerian forensic pathologist of Igbo descent, Dr, Bennet Omalu in Concussion proved to be disastrous, and it wasn’t because Smith isn’t Nigerian, although there are tons of Nollywood actors who would’ve killed that role. It had everything to do with his limitations as an actor as demonstrated in Ali — where he played Muhammad Ali, and inexplicably garnered an Oscar nomination, despite his distractedly uneven performance.
British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, delivered a stilted performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that dulled the vibrancy of Ava DuVernay’s critically-acclaimed Selma, but that didn’t stop him from being feted with nominations during awards season. The question will always hover about whether or not an American-born actor with lesser known status could’ve done that movie justice.
Then you have castings that hit the mark, like the choice of British-Nigerian actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor who did a fine job portraying the born free African-American, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he remained until his release twelve years later. Most would argue that his affecting performance was his best to date. And breakout star, Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o ended up winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her memorable work.
Both Ejiofor and Nyong’o are not American-born actors, but they are of African descent, and they were both offered roles that challenged their wealth of talent. There’s also the fact that the trajectory of their careers caught the attention of an industry that places bets on those that promise to yield the necessary returns.
And that’s the crux of the issue with Cynthia Erivo’s casting, and why it shouldn’t be processed as another slot in the ongoing Diaspora wars.
Hollywood plays by rules that abide by dollars and cents, and the viability of choices that are inspired by the guarantee of magnificent returns.
Of course Will Smith will play the heroic Nigerian doctor even if he can’t muster the ability to deliver a flawless Igbo accent, because his name matters more than a superbly talented Nollywood star that nobody knows.
It makes sense that Don Cheadle would accept the call to play Rwandan humanitarian, Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, because of his star power and ability to deliver a quietly stoic performance based on his enviable career in Hollywood.
English actress Thandie Newton and American actress Anika Noni Rose, portray Igbo sisters at the center of chaotic timelines, that center around Nigeria’s independence from British rule and the Nigerian Civil War — in the film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s, Half of a Yellow Sun.
I basically spent the entire film silently wondering why Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji, who is also of Igbo descent, wasn’t cast in the part that went to Newton. The actress of Igbo descent scored a supportive role in the movie, and while she did her best with the material she was given, it made zero sense that she wasn’t awarded the role that suited her best.
There’s also an upcoming adaptation of Adichie’s beloved novel — Americanh — and Lupita Nyong’o is preparing to play the role of Ifemelu. Nyong’o doesn’t resemble an Igbo woman in any shape or form, but she’s a major player in Hollywood — and so her pairing with David Oyelowo — makes sense. Both actors have the star power that’s required to get the film financed and into production.
Actor Forest Whitaker nabbed a plethora of honors for his betrayal of Uganda’s menacing dictator Idi Amin in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, and it includes — an NAACP Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture as well as an Academy Award for Best Actor. Whitaker did an amazing job capturing the layered nuances of a bullish tyrant, and definitely deserved all the accolades.
By the way, Kerry Washington was awkwardly cast in the same movie, where she played one of the abused wives of the famed dictator, and while it was obviously a decision that was motivated by viability as opposed to accuracy, Washington did her very best to produce an accent that ultimately didn’t receive a passing grade.
Several actors and have portrayed the late iconic freedom fighter and global activist, Nelson Mandela — including Idris Elba, Morgan Freeman, Terrence Howard, Laurence Fishburne, and Danny Glover. And only one of those actors can register his Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean roots.
And if I remember correctly Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson famously played the title role of Winnie Mandela opposite Howard in the 2011 film.
In television, Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose spent only one season on the HBO/BBC produced The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency where they played African women who run a successful detective agency in Botswana. Both Scott and Noni Rose weren’t the ideal actresses for those roles when you consider the plethora of locally-bred talents that could’ve flawlessly gotten the job done — but when it comes to studio casting — only recognizable faces and names make the cut.
The point is that Hollywood is a money-making machine that’s driven by trends and the talent that can be relied on to activate roles that they may not necessary embody with historical currency, but their presence is enough to make up for those inadequacies.
Cynthia Erivo is a powerhouse performer with an immense talent, whose star is on the rise, and when you add her impressive roster of awards, her unshakable durability is hard to deny.
She’s part of a heavyweight ensemble in the upcoming Widows, an ambitious film by one of the most respected filmmakers in the industry, Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), alongside a bevy of notable co-stars headed by Viola Davis and Fast and Furious staple, Michelle Rodriquez.
And the reviews on her performance are quite positive as Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair notes that:
Erivo makes a striking film debut and has the best arms of anyone in the movies this year.
When you score on that level, the playing field shifts in your favor, and naturally, your status demands a revision of the kind of material that comes your way as it pertains to future projects.
There’s also the reality of how Erivo’s controversial casting doesn’t in any way prevent future actresses from producing the version that could appease protesters. If dozens of actors of every skin hue and background imaginable, can be given the opportunity to play an iconic South African freedom fighter, then why can’t that treatment be transferred when it comes to portraying an iconic American abolitionist?
The truth is that Erivo is caught in the crossfire of a war that she should pay attention to since she will be tackling an assignment about a real-life heroine — who means a whole lot to a population that has always felt slighted and fucked over by circumstances that are out of their control.
I don’t think that it’s right to harass Erivo for nabbing the project of her lifetime, by publicly shaming her for overruling actresses who have a direct link to the ancestral renderings of her highly-revered character. Especially since the logistics behind her hire fit the standard blueprint of how Hollywood typically operates, regardless of what’s just and fair.
But I do understand where the frustration stems from and why it’s vital for those who are on the receiving end of mounting ire, to make the effort to fully grasp why this is a battle that won’t end until there’s a demonstrated alliance that’s genuine — and accompanied with enough humility and acquired knowledge to re-establish the link that remains broken.
As a Nigerian-American who isn’t quite Nigerian or American, but has enough friends who look like her, and are descendants of slaves — my empathy and solidarity is grown from the familiarity of continued displacement. And the willingness to not only try to respect the boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed, but to also comprehend the sensitivity around fragile bonds — that are easily hampered by a nagging mistrust that has to be addressed accordingly.
There’s nothing worse than knowing where you come from, and yet constantly striving for those instincts that keep you connected. When I visit my homeland, the joy is overwhelming, but I never have enough time to fully bond before heading back to the country of my birth.
And with the current wars that are raging with deafening defiance, my unyielding bond with a community that accepted me with no questions asked is being threatened, and I can’t deny those who need to reassess whether those pledges are heartfelt or just a practiced ploy.
I am more than willing to step up to the plate and keep this conversation active for as long as it needs to be, but we can’t involve the mechanics of Hollywood, and the raving machine that rarely gives a shit about authenticity, and concentrates mostly on how the stars shine — regardless of background checks.
Cynthia Erivo is more than capable of proving why she’s been gifted her latest coup, and the reasons why she’s being pummeled by naysayers has everything to do with the residue from a separate battle that she minimally engaged in, and now has to square away for the sake of general diplomacy.
This war is so intense that a few who tweeted their initial support for Erivo when the announcement of her casting was official, immediately deleted the evidence, when they sensed the major push back on the horizon.
The long overdue conversation is necessary, and if it takes the inconsistencies of a social media star to initiate it — then so be it. Let’s duke this out fair and square, and we could start with why we should all be on the same side, and how that “almost impossibility” — can be possible if we all do our part.