Days before I sit down with Wunmi Mosaku, a BAFTA winner you may recognize from Luther, ahead of the TIFF premiere of her new movie, Sweetness in the Belly, the film was already making headlines — and not the good kind.
Twitter had reacted (understandably) poorly to a still from the film posted by Deadline of Mosaku’s co-star Dakota Fanning wearing a head scarf. The photo was captioned: "First Clip Of Dakota Fanning As A White Ethiopian Muslim In Refugee Drama-Romance." The accusations of the movie’s "whitewashing" created enough of a stir that Fanning took to Instagram to clarify that her character is not Ethiopian and that, even though she is the movie's star, "this film was partly made in Ethiopia, is directed by an Ethiopian man and features many Ethiopian women."
Mosaku plays Amina, an Ethiopian refugee living in 1980s London who befriends Fanning’s Lily, a white woman who is orphaned as a child in Morocco and raised in Ethiopia as a Muslim. Lily falls in love with an idealistic doctor, Aziz (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) before fleeing the war-torn country. The story is based on Canadian Camilla Gibb’s 2005 novel of the same name. Mosaku is not Ethiopian — she tells me proudly that she’s "100 per cent Nigerian" — but she has a special connection to the country. She says she loves Ethiopian food and by visiting authentic restaurants around the world, she finds an "Ethiopian Auntie" in every city. "I have one in London. I have one in Manchester. I have one in L.A. And I frequent an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, but she hasn’t officially adopted me yet."
It’s a cute anecdote that makes me laugh, and on another day, Mosaku and I would just banter about her love of kocho and kinche, delve deeper into her character or talk more about the film’s relevance in a political climate that often treats refugees like a divisive talking point instead of human beings. Instead, we spend a good chunk of our conversation discussing the backlash, as well as Mosaku's upcoming role in Jordan Peele’s new HBO project and how Brexit is affecting her career.
Amina is a mother and refugee with a tragic back story — she endured sexual abuse while protecting her son in refugee camps before settling in London — but she’s also such a light in the film. What was it about the character that drew you to her?
I loved her optimism, her hope, her realness. She was never a victim. She was like, "I’m alive, it’s not an accident that I am here, and I am going to do the most with it." I didn’t know much about the civil war at all, so I came to it wide-eyed and I learned so much.
This story feels very timely — especially with what’s going on politically when it comes to immigration.
There’s always been people who need solace and refuge throughout history. That’s what I love about this story. It isn’t just about where you’re from, it’s about what’s happening to you. Lily and Amina are not from the same place but they share a similar story because of where they’ve been raised and how the war has affected them and their need for safety. They look completely different, but they share so much. And isn’t that just the reality of life. We think we’re so different from that person over there, but we really share so much. People always concentrate on the differences, which always seem to be what you look like or to which god you pray.
Speaking of those differences we tend to focus on, I have to ask you about the whitewashing accusations.
I found out about it yesterday before I got on my flight to Toronto. I’m not great on social media. When I found out, I was a bit like, "Oh, I get it." If you think this is a story about a Muslim Ethiopian woman and it’s being told by a white woman, I can understand why that is problematic, jarring, and offensive. But this is a story about a girl who was orphaned in Africa. Her parents died. She was raised in Africa by no choice of her own. She is culturally Moroccan and Ethiopian. Culturally, that’s the life she’s lived. It’s also a novel. It’s a fiction. A woman wrote a story because she fell in love with Ethiopia and wanted to place someone like her in a story. She wrote a book that was actually really good and it got made into a movie.
One of the criticisms from people — and granted some of them haven’t seen the film yet — was that this is a film about Ethiopia and yet it’s centered on a white woman, which feels unfortunate especially when we don’t get a lot of films about the African diaspora.
I think it’s a story about home and culture and how to identify home. It’s a story about female relationships, sisterhood, community, and displacement. For me, that’s what I read when I read it. I’m playing an Ethiopian, but I didn’t go to Ethiopia. None of my scenes are in Ethiopia. My story in the film is about the community that we built.
What would be your response to critics that ask, "Why is it a white woman in the centre of this love story AGAIN?" Especially when we are craving to see Black women in starring roles and the ones who get the love story.
But I feel it’s the two of them [Lily and Amina]. I do feel like their relationship is the heartbeat of the film. It’s about finding a sister in someone who you judge to be so far away from you. The film also gets into her privilege. There is some tension between them.
Dakota Fanning responded on Instagram to defend the film. She clarifies her role and wrote that the film is "about what home means to people who find themselves displaced." Do you agree?
Yeah, I agree. And also, what’s interesting is that the white African story is there. They are in Africa. I also think this story is universal. There are displaced people from all countries. It shows that we could all be in this situation and with the way things are going now with global warming and with Brexit, we could be.
OK, let’s move on. I’m curious to know if in this time of political upheaval, if you consciously pick roles that are more politically or socially conscious?
I don’t think I did think of that before but since Brexit and since [whispers] Trump, it just feels like I can’t take a role just because I love the character. Now, there is a responsibility in how I have to pick roles — I mean, that’s also assuming you have the choice… because sometimes you just get what you’re given.
That’s the reality of this industry for a Black woman.
Yeah, that’s unfortunately the reality.
You’re shooting Jordan Peele’s HBO series Lovecraft Country. It’s been described as a "supernatural racial drama." What can you tell us about it?
It’s been surreal. I’m really proud of it so far. I’m really excited for people to see it. It is scary but it’s also political and especially what we’ve been talking about — it’s set in the '50s in the Jim Crow south. Race is at the centre. It is absolutely paramount. Misha Green has done an amazing job. She did it. I’m so proud of it.