It was a classic blast from the past three weeks ago, when during an episode of Ugly Betty, a friend I'd not seen for 9 years or so came swanning past on the screen. I was on a phone call at the time and screamed into the mouthpiece, "Ahhh!!! Funmi Desalu's on Ugly Betty!!!"
Blink and you'll miss her, but a few seconds was enough. When the hour-plus repeat came on shortly after, I took this blurry shot of a screen in constant motion. Ever had a friend you were very fond of but had lost touch with, and wondered now and then where they were? What they were up to and if they were okay? I've wondered the same concerning Funmi Desalu since she left London for the US in search of bigger modelling dreams circa 1996. She, myself and a number of mutual friends were once part of what I've called "an impossibly glamorous pack of young Nigerians living in London known as the North West Set."
Born in Moscow to a Gambian mother and a Nigerian father, Funmi Desalu was/is tall, sophisticated and witty. She inspired a character in a short story of mine. I remember Funmi always used to laugh at the way I called an irritant male "a cretin". I've scanned the odd fashion magazine for some sighting of her over the years - and saw nothing. Until now. I guess I'm glad to learn my old friend is walking on the right side of fame.
In this episode of Ugly Betty (starring producer Salma Hayek and Vanessa Williams, who is astonishing as Wilhemina Slater), Funmi is credited for a non-speaking role, playing an assistant in a conference scene with Ugly Betty star America Ferrara. And in the following week's episode, it was a game of 'Spot Funmi' as she could be seen as one of the extras in the elaborate choreography of background office workers walking back and forth behind the main players. My curiousity piqued, I googled Funmi only to find that she's credited for a string of small roles as "Fumi Desalu" (somebody please put the 'n' back into that name! At least Ugly Betty got the spelling right). As a result, I'm now paying better attention to episodes of 'How I Met Your Mother' in case my old friend turns up one day as a 'bar waitress'.
Funmi's biggest turn to date would appear to be in Eddie Murphy's latest film, Norbit.
Unfortunately, it is the kind of film I absolutely detest, for the lavatorial humour that reaches only for the lowest common denominator. But most importantly, for the perpetuation of the disgusting stereotype of the 'dark' black woman who is so fat and undesirable no one in their right minds would want her. She is so ugly, even a man could play her convincingly on film.
Eddie Murphy (and Martin Lawrence - with his 'Big Momma's House' movies) has a made a career of raking millions out of this uneducated stereotype (I'll never forgive his twisted-mouthed African woman's: "Eddieee, what have you done for me latelyyy?" joke) which is harmful to black females. Murphy does this, while (1) his ex-wife and mother of his five children; (2) his contentiously pregnant ex-girlfriend Mel B; and (3) his current, joined-at-the-hip squeeze Tracey B Edmonds (Babyface's ex-wife) - are all very obviously mixed race - light-skinned black women; the opposite of the 'dark' black woman he lampoons mercilessly onscreen. And in this new film, the 'disgusting'-fat-mistake-of-a-black-woman is juxtaposed with the 'fragrant' female that Norbit-the-geek desires - and she's played by the obviously mixed race Thandie Newton. Need I say more?
It was really good seeing Eddie Murphy challenge the viewer's expectation in Dreamgirls, a film in which he is really, really good. But any goodwill he garnered for that role is destroyed by Norbit. I'm glad he didn't get that Oscar.
But look at me! Talking about my delight at seeing a long lost friend on an international hit show and getting bogged down with the colour politics of a movie! After all, it's only a movie, isn't it? No, it's never really only a movie. But I respect the fact that Norbit was good payday and another notch in Funmi Desalu's resume. Writers have to work strategically sometimes too - some you do for love of the art and some you do for god-knows-what. And for this reason, I shall put myself through 2 hours of excruciating 'humour' - and pay for a ticket to see Norbit - just to see Funmi Desalu for a few minutes on that big screen. That's what old friends are for, I guess.
And I look forward to the day I see Funmi in the flesh, again.
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