Colorism in Black Films

I won’t call it the “Black Renaissance” in film because we’ve already been through them before. During the 1990s, when Spike Lee, John Singleton, Julie Dash, and Mario van Peebles were making films it was supposed to be ushering in a time when black stories were front and center, but then, nothing happened. There was no huge shakeup of the industry. There was no take over of black creatives at the Oscars and more poignantly, there was no generation of black filmmakers behind them to keep the wave going. Like many things in black culture, it was popular, hyped up, adopted by the white mainstream, diluted and discarded. But I will say that we are, through the long memory of the internet, in an unprecedented time for black filmmakers.

I want to say that it started with Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’, although really you could say that it was happening in one of the biggest, (and most derived) American film franchise, ‘The Fast and the Furious’ where many black directors moved huge budget films. Although I would say that two films really kicked off the movement, Steve McQueen’s 2013 ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ and Ava Duvernay’s 2014 ‘Selma’. These films, although a year apart, really started catching the eyes of everyone to look at not only films about black people but films made by black people, telling their own stories. Currently, in 2018 alone we had Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’, Spike Lee’s ‘Blackkklansman’ Gerard McMurray’s ‘The First Purge’  and the Daveed Diggs penned ‘Blindspotting’, plus a slew of other black starring films. It’s hard not to be excited about what’s being offered. It seems for the first time in film history black people have a choice of movies to see starring black people, instead of being obligated to see the handful of films targeted to them a year.

But in these films, a trend emerged, during a screening of Blindspotting I had a revelation. Every woman in the film was light, very light. Thinking of the last film I saw, Sorry to Bother You, there were only light-skinned women in that film, the love interest in The First Purge was light skinned with natural braids (as opposed to a dark-skinned hooker with a relaxer) as is Blackklansman’s Laura Harrier. It seems that Black Hollywood has a shortage of dark-skinned black women. But how could that be? How are there so many roles for light skinned women and not enough for dark-skinned women? Why are so many black filmmakers making this choice?

The use of light skinned women in movies is really one of colorism and by extension internalized racism. The preference for lighter skinned black women or women who “pass” for white, can be traced back to the time of Pre-Civil War slavery by white people and translated to black people as well. This way of viewing lighter skinned blacks as having closer proximity to whiteness, thus having more of a privilege and an easier time in life still shows up in many different ways. It’s who we put on the cover of magazines, who we define as having “good” features, it’s who we give better-paying jobs to. We reinforce it to our children, our children carry that in themselves and they then pass it on to others. It’s internalized and a form of emotional violence. When Black Panther came out it was the first time I had seen so many dark-skinned women in prominent roles. It made me sad. Growing up the most beautiful black woman in the world was Halle Berry (at least according to the global media of the ’90s), she was on every magazine cover, named the top most beautiful woman on many lists and inspired many male fantasies. But most of the women I knew didn’t look like her, most of the women I knew were much darker, most of my friends were much darker, with kinky hair and full lips. They weren’t the “squint and you might mistake it” tan beige of my youth.

Recently on twitter, it was brought up that there were no dark-skinned black actresses under 30 in starring roles. Taking it as a challenge, I sat and thought about it for a while, Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Uzo Aduba, Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, Danai Gurira, Yetide Badaki… all over 30. I did manage to think of one, days later, Letitia Wright who is 24. What message is this sending? What images are being valued in our society and why are the people perpetuating it the most, our own?

I want to be optimistic and say that this is not something that is industry wide or part of some pro-light skinned agenda. I want to believe that more actresses are getting opportunities, as they say, “ the tide raises all boats”, as more black filmmakers get the opportunities to make more films, the representation will spread out. Already there are two productions coming out by black directors with dark-skinned women to look forward to Steve McQueen’s Widows in 2018 and Jordan Peele’s Us in 2019 (neither starring women under 30). These films haven’t even made it out in theatres and people are already considering them shoe-ins for awards season. But I can’t help but to notice, in these films the dramatic roles are played by dark-skinned women but when it comes to playing the love interest in a mainstream movie it usually goes to a lighter-skinned actress.


Black people, we can do better.


The difference between what is happening now in film and what happened before is that one; we have the soundboard that is black twitter, where people can give hot takes in 130 words or less and we have more films coming out by more directors, the demand for black filmmakers is high. With having more films coming out, the issues of black people can be handled by many different voices and perspectives. Issues long held to the living room table and the barbershop have a chance to be explored through the lens of film art. Through film, black people have a chance to see ourselves reflected back at us, and what we see may not always be pretty.

Film can be a mirror, used to expose the thoughts, biases, and hidden feelings of the filmmaker and their audience. Film has been used for decades to show the many lives and expressions of white men, and their treatment of women and now it seems that black male filmmakers are having a similar experience. It’s foolish to think that black men would only produce politically correct, culturally woke pieces, this denies the humanity in all of us. Because we have never been in a time like this, where so much media on television and in movies is coming out by black creators that we can have more conversations than just “It exists! Be happy!” Black filmmakers can now have their art held in so much respect that it too can be critiqued and have its faults pointed out, hopefully without the fear that it will be dismissed altogether. For many white artists, having their work critiqued for its merits is the path to legitimacy, but for many black artists, any deviance from perfection meant the path to obscurity. But with the consistent output and financial returns from black filmmakers, more films will come out and the opportunity to reflect on the way we see ourselves and each other will become more obvious.

The use of lighter-skinned black women in these roles is one of support, regardless of what the plot of the film is. In Blackkklansman, Laura Harrier’s Patrice is a college organizer who exposes the main character to the struggles of black liberation and identity. In Sorry to Bother You, Tessa Tompson’s Detroit is an artist who exposes the main character to the struggles of the working class and the benefits of union organization. In The First Purge, Lex Scott Davis’s Nya exposes the main character to the needs of a marginalized, black community to fight back under its governmental oppressors. In all of these films, the Radical Pixie Black Girl comes in and saves the men by opening their eyes to what they are missing, then politely takes a back seat to their story. In Jourdain Searles’ Bitch magazine article “‘Sorry to Bother You’s’ Female Lead is More Symbol that Person” she writes: “Foxy, Sugar, Coffy, and their sisters in blaxploitation cinema were written as ordinary women who became vigilantes to avenge their fallen brothers and lovers; their resilience and loyalty to their communities made them icons of Black female power. In the 1970s, when blaxploitation helped spread the ideals of the Black Power movement and highlight socioeconomic realities of Black urban life, such archetypes made sense. But it’s frustrating, in 2018, to feel as though Black women in film are still so often deployed to symbolize their community and support Black men.” In each of these films black women are used

With Boots Riley’s response to criticism about his character of Detroit, it was slightly refreshing to see a black filmmaker be confronted on more issues than just that of race. Riley was off put by the fact that Detroit doesn’t fit the “actual definition” of a manic pixie dream girl if that actually exists at all. Riley’s three-page long defense of his character highlights one major thing, if he has to write this at all that means it’s missing from his film. If the director, has to pen a three-page explanation for what his character’s motivation was, then the audience is not at fault for missing it. Perhaps all these men could explain as to why their characters needed to be light-skinned, that it says something about the story. Which is why I didn’t bother to include Ava Duvernay’s Wrinkle in Time, despite also having a light-skinned lead, because her being mixed race was part of the story. But what does Detroit’s lightness have to do with the way that her story was told? Or the way the director saw her?

Black directors, in their own time, in their own way will have to answer the question of who they are casting for their roles. If there are enough films, so that we aren’t just happy for the happy few who got to make a film at all, then we can question the choice of one actor over another. We are in the time of plenty, but it doesn’t mean we can’t question what we consume.