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Dakota Fanning's role in 'Sweetness in My Belly' flaunts Hollywood's addiction to the white gaze

White people are so used to seeing themselves on screen that Hollywood seems not to trust that they could connect with the humanity of people of color.
Image: Sweetness In The Belly
Dakota Fanning in "Sweetness in the Belly"Hanway Films

With buzz words like "inclusion" and "diversity" swirling about, the film industry has in recent years begun scrambling to present stories that have previously been ignored or suppressed. However, in doing so, they continue to strip agency from Black and brown voices, pushing them to the side of their own narratives to center white faces.

A rather egregious example of this is the upcoming film, ”Sweetness In the Belly,” starring Dakota Fanning. Based on Canadian author Camilla Gibb's award-winning novel, the story follows Lilly (played by Fanning), a white child abandoned by her hippie parents in a Moroccan village. Raised by a Sufi master in the Islamic faith, 16-year-old Lilly eventually makes an overland pilgrimage to an Ethiopian city — which, if your geography is lacking, is roughly the distance from Anchorage, Alaska, to Miami — and settles there until the revolution breaks out and she's forced to flee to London.

Shoving aside the experiences of Ethiopian people who actually lived through the atrocities of the Ethiopian Civil War is offensive enough — but Lilly never even existed. Gibb, who was born in England, wrote a novel about the "imagined narrative of one woman's search for love and belonging, cast against a nuanced portrait of political upheaval." As astounding as it is to consider, Gibb literally chose a historical incident that involved Black people and created a white woman to place in the center of it all. And now her story will reach an even wider audience through cinema.

Though director, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, is Ethiopian, ”Sweetness In the Belly” appears to be a master class in cultural appropriation. But, given Hollywood's track record, it's a film that will undoubtedly delight white moviegoers who claim to be worldly. The film will use civil war and the experience of being a Black refugee in a majority-white country as a backdrop without forcing its audience to face the true horrors of the Ethiopian Civil War, which saw the massacre of millions of people. To this day, Ethiopians are still dealing with the aftermath.

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But the movie is hardly alone it its efforts to center the white experience in a Black story. One of the most recent examples of this type of stripping and decentering Black people from their own narratives can be found in 2018's Oscar-winning “Green Book.” The film is nominally about the world-class African American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), but his experiences of race, class and sexuality are suppressed in favor of those of his Italian American driver, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). In stealing Shirley's own story away from him, "Green Book" became a film about humanizing racists.

Another shining example of centering white interlocutors in Black narratives is 2011's “The Help,” which collected the stories of Black Mississippi maids in the 1960s and placed them in the hands of a white Southern society girl, acting as the voice and supposed "champion" of these women. In 2018, the Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis said of “The Help, "It wasn't the voices of the maids that were heard."

And from Harriet Beecher Stowe' “Uncle Tom's Cabin” to 2009's “The Blind Side,” this has happened time and time again. White people are so used to seeing themselves as the heroes of stories that it seems unfathomable to Hollywood that they would be able to simply connect with the humanity of people of color without a white protagonist in which to see themselves. And given the commercial success of such movies and accolades from the heavily white Academy, it seems likely that Hollywood isn't entirely wrong in their low estimation of white audiences.

Though people like Viola Davis and the family of Dr. Don Shirley continue to speak out about the problems created by these inversions, and some networks and studios (like Oprah Winfrey's OWN) are working to elevate Black and brown stories without white interlocutors — "Queen Sugar," "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" and "Greenleaf" — the rest of Hollywood seems intent on plugging their ears, closing their eyes and trudging along, lazily clinging to the status quo.

By consciously placating the white gaze, Hollywood is adding to America's long legacy of undervaluing people of color and the lives we lead. Seeing stories that center Black and brown lives instead of white ones as "niche" has become so prevalent that, when Black and brown writers and directors write solely for their communities or from their experiences, it's seen by white communities as exclusionary to white people. The late Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Toni Morrison was highly criticized when her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye” was published in 1970: The New York Times reviewer remarked that Morrison was "far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life."

Morrison would stand against this type of dismissive rhetoric for the duration of her career, calling it "powerfully racist." In a 2003 profile with The New Yorker, she explained: "Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn't limit my imagination; it expands it. It's richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I've experienced more."

And yet, white Hollywood is still insistent on continuously inserting themselves in narratives that should exist solely to elevate the experiences of the less represented. If you cannot connect with your fellow man outside of your singular experiences —if you refuse to look within your soul for common threads that live deep beneath the surface — than your imagination and, in turn, your humanity may very well be barren.

Storytelling is a powerful thing, especially when narratives are told through the medium of film. Often, movies give a voice to the powerless, seeking to connect human beings across continents. When these stories are told through an authentic lens, they can shatter the barriers that we as human beings have placed upon ourselves. Unfortunately, filmmaking — despite the increased accessibility, and the shift towards digital — is a medium for the wealthy. Many of the narratives that the gatekeepers of Hollywood deem strong enough to tell often center on white faces and experiences. For years, Black and brown faces were erased from the big and small screens entirely, but more recently, Hollywood's game has been elevating the white narrator while allowing the Black and brown faces to appear. That's not going to be good enough.