Earlier this week, it was reported that Beyoncé wants to write, direct and star in a film about the life of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman. The backlash over this news was immediate and furious.
Less than a day after reports, Beyoncé's rep told Billboard, "Beyonce is in no way tied to this project. This is an important story that should be told, however." It's unclear whether the harsh criticism killed the pop singer's project, nonetheless, the controversy has sparked significant conversation. Because to understand the controversy, we have to discuss who Baartman was, and ultimately who Beyoncé is not.
Before there was Destiny Child’s curves-embracing anthem “Bootylicious,” there was Baartman, a South African woman infamous in 19th century Europe for her “exotic” physical features, including a large buttocks, which were paraded around in "freak shows" in London and Paris. Known as “the Hottentot Venus” on stage, she came to represent Europe’s view of Africans as sexually primitive and racially inferior.
When I heard about Bey’s new project, I was shocked. On the one hand, the personally tragic and historically significant story of Baartman deserves to be told. But is a pop star, even a huge one like Beyoncé, the right person to tell it? The response seems to be a resounding “no,” most notably from a South African chief:
"She lacks the basic human dignity to be worthy of writing Sarah’s story, let alone playing the part,” Chief Jean Burgess of the Ghonaqua First Peoples told News24. “Why Sarah Baartman? Why not a story about an Indigenous American woman? I can only see arrogance in her attempt to tell a story that is not hers to tell.”
I agree that this narrative, which is so ingrained in South African history and heritage, deserves the nuance and insight that perhaps only a South African would be equipped to tell. But beyond the cultural understanding that Beyoncé may or may not be lacking, my issue with the thought of her playing Baartman is this -- Beyoncé doesn’t look anything like her.
That may seem superficial, but Baartman was a woman who was violated, abhorred and ultimately ruined because of her looks, and to have Beyoncé play her is not only problematic but insulting to Baartman’s memory. If Beyoncé, light-skinned and curvy to a socially acceptable level, had actually gone through with this project, she would also be taking the role away from a South African actor of a certain body type and image with few acting opportunities in the first place.
If Beyoncé had in fact chosen to pursue this project, she would be joining a slew of recent similarly confounding casting choices including Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in “Long Walk to Freedom” and Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in “Nina.” As talented as those actors are, I’d be glad that Beyoncé wouldn’t be joining them anytime soon in the biopic fails hall-of-shame.
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