In the last couple of weeks, colorism has managed to rear its ugly ass head in more ways than one...with the usual pattern of many light-skinned women either taking these conversations personally or dark-skinned men with their own very special internalized colorist issues. But as with the nature of the colorism beast, no colorism conversation would be complete without trolls that have the combined energy of pro-lifers, climate-change deniers, flat-Earth conspirators and ashy hoteps coming out in full force.
I know what you’re thinking:
What caused this latest flare up of colorism discussions?
Great question. There’s not one easy answer to that. In fact, there’s actually three separate occasions that contributed to the multi-platform discussion. And while it starts with novel The Hate U Give and its adaptation, it also includes upcoming Netflix series Raising Dion and Fox’s obvious issue with colorism in their X-Men franchise.
To be clear, about two months ago, the trailer for The Hate U Give debuted, and social media came alive with concerns—putting it nicely—about actress Amandla Stenberg playing the lead in the film. This happened for two reasons. The first is because the original book cover displayed a much, much darker protagonist, and Stenberg did not fit that same depiction. The second is because Hollywood has a very “I’m trying to be slick, but I’m not” tendency to cast multiracial/mixed race actresses as the only actresses that get to portray Black women. Period. And this latter phenomenon is even more problematic than it sounds.
There was a slight snag in this initial discussion though, in that it was initially discovered that the author of The Hate U Give novel, Angie Thomas, had wanted Stenberg to portray the character of Starr Carter from Jump Street... or so, that’s maybe what she wanted us to think. It was later revealed that while Thomas says she allegedly wanted Stenberg for the role, illustrator Debra Cartwright didn’t get that memo at all and wasn’t shy about voicing that. In fact she states that she “literally just followed exactly what they said in the book” and wasn’t thrilled about the entire thing, mainly because she too was hoping the production would go for a darker actress.
Which brings us to an interesting impasse. Even if I believe that Thomas truly had Stenberg in mind as soon as she penned the novel (and I’ma be honest—I’m skeptical as fuck), I’m inclined to ask why. It’s a chicken and egg thing, really. Did she pick Stenberg because she was actually the best person for the role, or did she pick her because Hollywood consistently fronts like she is only one of three possible young actresses who could go up for the role? Does Thomas possess internalized colorism? These seem like unrelated questions, but nothing is ever unrelated when it comes to colorism in Hollywood. And if the former is true... can one really say that without considering the role that colorism has blatantly played in the last couple of years?
This is what I found myself thinking over and over again as this brouhaha raged on and, rather than instantly assume malicious intent by all parties involved in this casting decision, a question was posed:
The question is one that was posed by film critic ReBecca Theodore-Vachon and one that I think even Thomas would have a tough time answering. I say this because even I, Theodore-Vachon, and countless others attempted to take on the challenge and, quite frankly, failed.
Instead, the only name people could genuinely come up with was Black Panther star and Black Mirror alum Letitia Wright, who is currently 24. And it became incredibly clear in the first 30 minutes (and after that) that the only dark-skinned actress many of us knew was Lupita Nyong’o—which was already pretty dismal, but it was made worse when I and ReBecca would comment under tweets that listed her name or other stars like Issa Rae and Tika Sumpter that these actresses were AT LEAST in their 30s. At least.
It was all unfortunate. And abysmal. And to be clear, after nearly an hour of thinking, Google-searching, and handwriting, everyone who participated in the thread managed to assemble an anemic list of brownskinned and darkskinned actresses that were certainly active, but failed Theodore-Vachon’s requirement of being part of the A-List.
Theodore-Vachon, in a simple exercise, was able to implicitly expose two major problems outside of a mere shortage of dark-skinned actresses. The first was the implication that dark-skinned actresses were not receiving comparable opportunities in Hollywood, how that starts very early (like with The Hate U Give) and how it leads these same actresses to not have comparable careers to their lightskinned counterparts. The second was the dire conclusion that if dark-skinned actresses were able to weather the intense discrimination and abuse in the business from all sides and “hang in there”, their careers would not really start to pop until they were at least 30-35. If at all.
This means that there’s virtually no incoming “class” of brown-skinned/dark-skinned actresses under 30 like there is with Stenberg, or Yara Shahadi or Laura Harrier and etc. But it also raises an interesting and stark dichotomy where light-skinned actresses represent “youthful” or otherwise “soft” Blackness and play roles that line up with that—mainly that of the love interest or select lead roles in coming to age stories. On the other hand, in what roles brown-skinned women and dark-skinned manage to secure, the roles are more dramatic in nature. More serious. Usually reduced to some obvious stereotype or archetype. Like the slave/mammy. Or the Jezebel. And countless others.
If The Hate U Give sparked the discussion, Raising Dion’s casting announcements back in June blew the damn door wide open and compounded on an already obviously ugly and uncomfortable issue.
And by blow the door open, I mean that it was quickly pointed out that the original young mother-son duo from the announcement looked way different, (read: lighter) than the original actors in the initial featurette.
To be honest, I was completely caught off-guard, depressed, and then irate. I still am. I had been following Raising Dion since it was announced back in October 2017 that it would be adapted for Netflix thanks to Michael B. Jordan and his production company, Outlier Society Productions. The concept of a Black mom dealing with the shenanigans that would ensue while raising a superpowered Black child was wildly compelling to me. And due to my still very present high from Black Panther, I saw the original actors for Raising Dion and naively thought that that would last.
Of course, this was simultaneously foolish of me, but also very indicative of the conundrum that Hollywood—including Black Hollywood—routinely puts brown-skinned women and dark-skinned women in.
We must support the culture, of course, because “we all Black,” but that same culture turns around and implicitly tells us through media and colorism that not only do we not belong in the culture, but that we are not wanted in it.
We can look…but we cannot touch, and we certainly cannot participate.
Fox in particular would know about this participation, or rather, lack thereof, since they have transparently enforced the ugliness that is colorism in their X-Men franchise in the last decade. The most obvious example is through the character Storm, which is funny since current Storm non-actress Alexandra Shipp is a blatant and delusional colorism denier who would have no career if not for colorism and who loves to shit on Storm, a canonically dark-skinned character by saying her skin color is only a thing due to a random crayon. But Fox has done this countless other times too. Don’t believe me?
Well, peep this:
Indeed. Even if we don’t count Storm, Fox has literally done this three other times with characters like Sunspot (cast above Henry Zaga, Cecelia Reyes (cast above by Alice Braga), and even Angel Salvadore (portrayed by Zoe Kravitz in X-Men: First Class). And Reyes and Sunspot are perhaps some of the worst examples, seeing that Reyes is literally drawn with dark skin AND locs, making her heritage painfully obvious and Sunspot was drawn so dark as an Afro-Latino that the X-Men had to openly address that and racism in the comics since 1982.
One instance of this is maybe an accident. Two a coincidence. After that? It’s a systemic issue. And one that Fox has no qualms with contributing to it.
And that’s the real problem here. Fox and the former examples of The Hate U Give and Raising Dion expose the fact that this is a distressful, deeply-rooted problem that needs to be addressed in a equally comprehensive way—besides discussion.
What I found some months ago during the initial conversation is that there were questions about if inclusion riders could be specifically harnessed to address colorism and who exactly could call such shots (that may result in colorism) in casting.
I personally thought inclusion riders would be a fairly easy way to tackle the issue, especially since one of the actors who had publicly declared to commit to them, was behind Raising Dion (and by extension, this latest colorism debacle). But after much discussion, it became increasingly clear that they might not be as helpful due to legalities and all the legal jargon that would remove the specificity and intentionality it could possess like that of a casting call (think of that problematic ass Straight Outta Compton casting call, but without the problematic part). It would get watered down from “hey let’s be intentional about giving dark-skinned actresses a shot” to “hey, let’s not discriminate and disqualify based on skin color”--which is what racism covers and it wouldn’t help that White entertainment professionals think that “darkskinned” means when they get extra tan during the summer and are somehow “darker” than their actual Black colleagues.
And speaking of legalities in casting, that’s essentially what prompts the question of who calls shots. I’m no casting professional, but I did pose the question to someone who is, and her answer was equal parts enlightening and semi-distressing and confirmed what I knew:
Casting directors have substantial power—but not all of the power. They’re the HR professionals to the hiring manager (who is a director or producer). But they’re often used as scapegoats anyways.
Essentially, our producer and director faves have the final say. And while I knew this, it doesn’t comfort me much to type it out. While Hollywood at-large has been virulently discriminatory against dark-skinned actresses, that discrimination doesn’t suddenly stop when it comes to our Black Hollywood faves. Colorism has been a problem for years. Since before I was born. It has touched the deepest and furthest parts of our community and can be felt everywhere—even across the diaspora. Even in our entertainment. Even in faves like Martin, The Proud Family, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Empire, and so much more.
And as much as we don’t want to admit it, this is intrinsically a community problem that has merely bled into our media. We cannot deny this, but we can confront it, level the playing field, and attempt to make it right.
But the thing about making it right is that doing so often is uncomfortable and would require us to get out of our own way as a people. Making it right looks like us calling out our producer and director faves for their colorist castings. No matter how tough. No matter how unintentional. Making it right looks like casting dark-skinned actresses in roles they don’t usually get to play (like the love interest or a goddamn superhero) and changing the culture for the better. Making it right looks like checking light-skinned actors or actresses whose replies are “we all black tho” to concerns that colorism is locking their darker-skinned colleagues out. Making it right looks like light-skinned actresses knowing when a role is not for them and recommending a dark-skinned actress who would kill it.
Making it right looks like admitting faults. Being cognizant of light-skinned privilege. Leveling your that privilege to reach back and pull up your dark-skinned sistren with you. Talking to other light-skinned folx and explaining what the fuck is what because you know they will listen to you and give you more respect than they would ever give a dark-skinned woman. Recognizing you don’t know everything about colorism, owning that, apologizing for it, and committing to learning more instead of removing yourself from the conversation entirely because “you don’t want to be wrong.”
And listen. It’s all a pretty imperfect and ugly process if I am to be frank. But you know what’s uglier?
And that kind of ugly doesn’t go away by pretending it does not exist.
We have to be intentional about making progress. And sometimes that requires us to give up something. Pay with our privilege, so to speak. Because what happens when we are not intentional is that “tokens” are merely created.
And that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
(Photos from left: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic, Karwai Tang/WireImage, Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for Backstage Creations)