What followed the announcement of HBO’S ordering of Americanah to a mini series, to be produced by Lupita Nyong’o, based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of the same name, was a squabble on Nigerian twitter over who would/should play the lead character, Ifemelu.
In 2014, it had been revealed that Lupita Nyong’o had purchased rights to adapt the book into a movie and would star in the film as Ifemelu alongside David Oyelowo as Obinze. In 2018, it was revealed that Americanah would no longer be made into a film but a TV series, a 10 episode mini series, and that Danai Gurira had come on board as co-producer and writer. This is why the outrage, altogether, on Twitter, however valid owing to the disappointments of Half Of A Yellow Sun with its major flaws of wrong casting and poor portrayals of Nigerians, seemed to have come a bit too late in the first place.
The most circulated rhetoric was the “madness” guiding the idea of having a Kenyan actor play a Nigerian character. What happened to Genevieve Nnaji? Those on the other side of the argument made excuses for this: Lupita bought the rights, so? Why didn’t a Nigerian producer purchase? Lupita is a veritable global superstar and has the economic power to turn the project into a major hit, critically and commercially.
While not trying to diminish the importance of star power to TV projects, I’m more of the opinion that what determines if a TV show becomes a hit or attain widespread popularity and acclaim hinges on how great the story is and how well this story was told. Take Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as reference. We cannot say that the show’s success resides in the hands of Elizabeth Moss’s (who plays the protagonist, June/Offred) “star power”. Prior to the show, she wasn’t a very known face. She did have a blooming career and had appeared in a number of TV series and indie films but to most audiences, the show was an introduction to her. While her head-turning, award winning performance can be attributed as a component of the show’s success, the show’s success happened chiefly because of its great premise (a dystopian world where women and their bodies are treated as objects for men ), its relatability (considering the political climate in the US currently where rights over women’s bodies are presided primarily over by men in government) and its brilliant execution.
From the rants on Nigeria Twitter (a copious amount of them incoherent and outrightly illogical), the desire to want Genevieve Nnaji or a Nigerian to play Ifemelu, I gather, stems more from sentiments than fears of the show lacking in authenticity. However “understandable” some of the sentiments were, I still find them petty. American actors have played British, Canadian, Russian characters and vice versa. Recently, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Nigerian, played a Malawian in the biographical film, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In 2017, David Oyelowo, a Nigerian, played a biographical character in Disney’s Queen Of Katwe.
Yes, Africa is made up of different nations. Yes, our stories aren’t the same and our cultures and realities, very different. Ditto for accents and mannerisms. But there’s absolutely no way that Lupita, a notoriously studious actor, also a Kenyan and an African, hasn’t taken cognisance of this. Antecedence also suggests that Chiwetel Ejiofor will take note of the cultural nuances the project will require of him. His laudable performance in The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, where he’d gone as far as learning the Malawian Chichewa language to bring his character to life, is enough proof.
Also, if we look closely and better at Americanah’s story, we’d see that Lupita is even more fitting to play Ifemelu than most Nigerian actresses. Ifemelu is the titular Americanah. In Nigerian lingo, an Americanah is a Nigerian, living in America or has lived in America, that has adopted the American accent and assimilated the American culture. Lupita Nyong’o, as an African immigrant in the US, must have faced similar realities with Ifemelu’s, and, perhaps, this deeper and more authentic connection to the story was what had prompted her to purchase the book’s rights in the first place. Just like Ifemelu, she had left Kenya as a teenager for college in America. So, Lupita is an Americanah.
It is no wish of mine to invalidate the feelings and fears of the Nigerian audience and lovers of the book over the authenticity of having a Kenyan play a Nigerian. Or rebuff the clamour for Nigerian representation in a TV Series about a Nigerian based on a book written by a Nigerian.The last adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work gave us Hollywood’s Thandie Newton as an Igbo girl who could not pronounce Kedu. The fears are valid. But we must accept that this isn’t a bizarre case of having a man play an originally female character, or having an American play an African in a biopic about said African. But we must consider that the Americanah story is the story of an immigrant in the US. Who better to play this story that an African immigrant in the US who has shared similar realities with that of the Ifemelu?
Lupita’s acting prowess is undisputable and has brought life to all the characters she’s played, starting from her break in her Oscar winning performance in 12 Years A Slave. Shouldn’t we then trust that Lupita would not shoddily portray Nigerian/Americanah Ifemelu, that she would use her crafts and talents to be true to the character and bring Ifemelu to life?