Controversy has surrounded Dakota Fanning’s casting in Sweetness in the Belly, but the whitewashing backlash appears to be misguided. Directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, the 2019 drama follows a Muslim Ethiopian woman, prompting many to question why Fanning - a white American actress - would be considered for the role (and actually cast). In this case, the answer lies in the source material.
As cinema continues to diversify, authentic character portrayals are crucial, whether it’s from an established star or an up-and-coming performer. For example, Mickey Rooney infamously portrayed the Japanese character I. Y. Yunioshi in Blake Edwards' 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The exaggerated performance not only didn’t align with Truman Capote's original character in the 1958 novel of the same name, but also shows how Hollywood masks blatant racism with comedy. In recent years, Emma Stone was cast as a Chinese character in the box office flop Aloha, and Rooney Mara portrayed a Native American character in Pan. These are merely two examples where non-white performers could’ve easily been cast.
So, why exactly was Fanning cast as an Ethiopian Muslim woman for Sweetness in the Belly? Fans of the 2010 zombie romance novel Warm Bodies may remember when Analeigh Tipton - a white woman from Minnesota - was cast in the film adaptation as Nora, an Ethiopian character. Here's the difference: on Instagram, Fanning rightfully explained (via People) that her Sweetness in the Belly character, Lilly Abdal (a role that was originally going to be portrayed by Saoirse Ronan), is not a native Ethiopian but rather a British woman who was abandoned by her parents as a child in Africa, and subsequently raised by her new family as a Muslim. The whitewashing allegations are factually incorrect.
Fanning also notes that Sweetness in the Belly was shot on location in Ethiopia, directed by an Ethiopian filmmaker, and prominently features Ethiopian women. The casting makes sense because Fanning’s character, in the original novel, is indeed a white Muslim. If the storyline was about a Muslim Ethiopia-born black woman living in England, then Fanning wouldn’t be an appropriate casting choice. Sweetness in the Belly's core drama is grounded in the fact that Fanning’s white Muslim character views Ethiopia as home, primarily because that’s all she’s ever known.
In addition, the Islam religion has nothing to do with race, so Fanning’s casting as a Muslim woman doesn’t correlate with “whitewashing”. The Sweetness in the Belly backlash is a perfect example of people reacting to news without fully understanding the basic facts - or just the source material. Just as it would be inappropriate for Fanning to portray a black character, it would be be inappropriate for a black woman to portray Sweetness in the Belly's Lilly Adbal, if only because the source material is fundamentally about a white character who grows up as a Muslim in Ethiopia. Given the context for Sweetness in the Belly's premise, Fanning's casting is backed up by logic.