Hollywood Has A Colorism Problem, And The Conversation Keeps Going Nowhere

Image: Angelica Alzona

Last week, a trailer for Netflix’s upcoming Western The Harder They Fall dropped— a film Indiewire described as “the biggest, poppiest, and most star-studded Black Western ever made.” It has a stellar all-Black leading cast that includes Idris Elba, Regina Hall, Lakeith Stanfield and Jonathan Majors. The film looks, on its surface, pretty good—a refreshing take on a genre that’s heavily dominated by and associated with whiteness. It ticks many of the arbitrary diversity boxes that some people rely on to decide whether a movie is doing “representation” right: a predominantly Black cast, Black producers, a Black writer-director.

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And yet, the casting of one of the movie’s stars, Zazie Beetz, has rightfully raised some eyebrows. The character Beetz plays, Stagecoach Mary, is based on a real person: a dark-skinned Black woman who, after being emancipated from slavery, became a mail carrier infamous for “liking liquor and gunfights.” The question is why a light-skinned actor like Beetz was chosen for a role traditionally played by darker-skinned actors like Esther Rolle, Dawnn Lewis, and Kimberly Elise.

Do people in Hollywood know colorism is a thing? That it is, in fact, the thing people should be talking about when they talk about racial inclusion, particularly for Black people? Race is a construct, yes, but it’s also true that that construct is based almost entirely on skin tone, hair texture, and features. The thing about colorism—the trick of it, really—is that it is the water in which all Black people swim, but only the people who are directly affected by it seem concerned with talking about it. This is by design: Colorism and racism are essentially different sides of the same coin.

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The colorism conversation, especially as it pertains to Black women, often revolves around desirability. And while the association of light-skinned blackness with romantic desirability is certainly a problem, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that colorism and featurism are deciding factors in every facet of life. And if the conversation were to move past desirability, certain other truths about colorism would have to be acknowledged.

Research shows that dark-skinned Black girls are three times as likely to be suspended from school than light-skinned Black girls. Dark-skinned Black women earn up to 25 percent less money than lighter-skinned women across the world. Dark-skinned Black women are more likely to receive longer and harsher prison sentences; they are more likely to be perceived as dangerous, or aggressive. They are more likely to be victims of police brutality and intimate partner violence. And so on, and so on.

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For all the discussions, debates, call-outs, and controversies relating to diversity that have come up over the last several years, one would think that the ubiquitousness of colorism in pop culture would be at the forefront of the discussion about racism in the industry. But it’s not, and there’s a reason for that.

For one thing, it’s significant to note who is and isn’t engaging. It’s been dark-skinned Black women, primarily, who questioned why Beetz had been cast in a role that could have gone to someone who looked more like the real-life Stagecoach Mary and who called out the ways in which darker, fatter Black women are continually diminished if not entirely erased from mainstream entertainment. This is usually the case, as this is not the first time women like me have had to call out colorism in Hollywood.

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Just this past summer, the movie adaptation of In the Heights was criticized for the overwhelming lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx people in its cast. The outcry over colorist casting arises constantly, whenever Zoe Saldana or Alexandra Shipp or Zoe Kravitz or some other such person whose features appeal more to white standards of beauty takes on a role originally conceived of or based on a dark-skinned woman. People make valid complaints, and the news cycle moves on.

The dialogue ostensibly seems to go in circles, and the fact that the same people seem to be having it is especially revealing. Very occasionally, a lighter-skinned actor like Thandiwe Newton will acknowledge the reality of colorism in the industry and in their own respective career, yes, but one wonders whether and how these acknowledgements are tantamount to real change.

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The problem is that conversations about representation in Hollywood (and elsewhere) never go deeper. If the goal is to disrupt a system that privileges whiteness or proximity to whiteness, can it truly be disrupted if people who benefit from that proximity (i.e. light skinned people) won’t acknowledge that they do?

There is a responsibility to engage, to disrupt, to challenge the privilege that comes with proximity to whiteness. The question is: whose responsibility is it? Is it solely the responsibility of actors like Beetz to recognize their light-skinned privilege and decline roles they feel should go to darker actors? Or does the responsibility ultimately fall on casting directors like Victoria Thomas, a dark-skinned Black woman who, in addition to working on The Harder They Fall, has also worked on Insecure, The Morning Show, Watchmen, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and True Detective? Or is it the executive producers and studio heads? The writers? The directors? Perhaps it’s literally everyone’s responsibility—the entire Hollywood apparatus?

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There’s a moment early on in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing in which the protagonist, Irene, ponders whether she’s been clocked as a “Negro” woman while lounging at a rooftop bar. That’s impossible, she thinks, because “white people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell, and by the most ridiculous means: fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot.”

The “silly rot” (that is, the arbitrary absurdness of racism) is that white people are oblivious about a lot of things when it comes to the arbitrary absurdness of racism— particularly the ways in which how we look dictates things like basic access and safety. The reality is that, yes, colorism is often an intraracial issue, but white people perpetuate and participate in this kind of discrimination just as much. Everyone does. So why isn’t everyone talking about it?

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Perhaps it’s because colorism only ever comes up in the discourse when it’s tied to representation, when it’s catalyzed by some light-skinned actress being cast in a role that could have and should have gone to someone darker. It never comes up in any other context, which is why it has continued to fly under the radar whenever we discuss inclusion.

It makes no sense that colorism—the foundation of racism, the scaffold on which white supremacy is built— isn’t at the forefront of the discussion about race in Hollywood. What good are gestures towards representation if they flatten or erase the complexities of Black identity? Zazie Beetz being cast as Stagecoach Mary isn’t the thing—it is the symptom of the thing. And if there is an antidote, it must be in color.

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