The Biracial Aesthetic: Colorism and Hollywood.

(left to right) Alexandra Shipp and Yara Shahidi

It’s no secret that 2018’s Black Panther was celebrated as a groundbreaking film. It was the first MCU film with a majority all black cast and set in Africa, but it was also groundbreaking for another reason: the women. In case you didn’t notice, all the women in Wakanda are dark-skinned and for black women that’s not something we see very often within media. With Letitia Wright as Shuri and Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, the film set itself apart from most comic book movies, and mainstream movies in general. Especially when compared to Fox’s X-Men where Storm, a mutant with Kenyan and African American heritage, is portrayed as a mixed race, light-skinned woman (Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp).

(left to right) Letita Wright and Lupita Nyong’o

Shipp in particular was called out on her performance, as her portrayal of Storm came out in 2016, versus Berry’s early 2000s role. When news emerged of Disney’s plans to buy Fox and potentially join the X-Men to the current Marvel universe, fans rejoiced. Maybe Storm would finally be cast properly, however, Shipp wasn’t a fan of that idea. In a series of absurd tweets and a blocking spree, it was clear where she stood with the issue.

Furthermore, in an interview with Glamour, Shipp doubled down on her views.

“I tweeted back at people who criticized me for not having dark enough skin for my role in X-Men because we’re not going to have this conversation about a cartoon character,” Shipp said. “You’re not going to tell me that my skin color doesn’t match a Crayola from 1970. Growing up, when I was reading the comics, I pictured her looking like me. For any black girl, for there to be a black superhero, we picture them looking like us.”

It’s all good and fine that Alex saw Storm and viewed herself. Many people have favourite characters that don’t reflect them exactly, or at all, but still relate to them in some way. What’s not fine is her blatant colourism and refusal to acknowledge it. However, Shipp is not the only light-skinned actress to take a role from a dark-skinned actor, or character, and the practise of coloursim doesn’t just reside within Hollywood.

In order to break down why this is, we’re going to have to explore the topic of colourism or ‘shadeism’. Colourism is a term that many darker skinned people of colour would be familiar with but if you aren’t, colourism is a type of discrimination based on skin colour. Unlike racism, colourism usually takes place within the communities of colour themselves and is an internalized form of bigotry. Colourism isn’t just the idea of being disliked for your skin tone, it is a real life issue that has real life consequences. Research has shown that colourism can affect prison sentence duration for black people, socioeconomic status, and school suspension for black students.

In 2013, a study by the University of Cape Town found that more than 1/3 of women in South Africa (35%) bleach their skin because they want to have “white skin.” According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 77 percent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59% in Togo and 27% in Senegal.

According to the Ivorian Ministry, they have now banned the skin whitening products containing mercury and its derivatives, cortisone, vitamin A and more than two percent hydroquinone, a lightening agent that is mostly used to develop photographs. This is because products aren’t simply making the users lighter as they think but, instead burning off the first layer of their skin. Expectant mothers who bleach experience trouble breastfeeding because of dried milk ducts and others can suffer from migraines, high blood pressure and skin cancer. These are all health effects that could impact victims of colourism.

The first examples of colourism within media that I witnessed as a young child were on ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ and ‘My Wife and Kids’ when both Aunt Vivian (Janet Hubert-Whitten) and Claire (Jazz Raycole) were recast. Not only that, but the two dark-skinned actresses were distinctly replaced by lighter skinned actors (Daphne Maxwell Reid and Jennifer Freeman) as if they were completely different people. I understand the need to replace actors, as it happens all the time during filming for TV or movies, but the distinct recasting of skin tones isn’t something of an accident. In fact, it’s very common that we see a lighter skinned mother or daughter in particular with a family of brown skinned sons and/or a darker skinned husband.

(left to right) Jazz Raycole & Jennifer Freeman
(left to right) Janet Hubert-Whitten & Daphne Maxwell Reid

One more recent example of this phenomenon in Hollywood is the casting for The Sun is Also a Star. Now, I’m going to be honest here and say I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s been on my readlist for sometime because I rarely find books with Jamaican female leads, especially when they’re dark-skinned. So imagine my surprise when I realized that Yara Shahidi, an Iranian and African American actress, has been cast to play a dark-skinned Jamaican immigrant. That alone had me feeling some type of way, but when the promotion pictures came out and we saw that Yara’s family in the movie were all dark-skinned and some were actually Jamaican, many couldn’t help but wonder why? Why is Hollywood so scared to cast a dark-skinned young actress within a role they belong in, a role created for them and a role they deserve.

The 2016 biopic, Nina also fell victim to Hollywood’s colorism. Based on the life of activist and singer Nina Simone, we saw this film recieve immense backlash from that primarily stemmed from the casting choice. Instead of casting someone like Uzo Aduba who very much resembles Simone and would’ve been incredible in this role, we got Zoe Saldana. Saldana not only donned a fake nose for this film as her own does not reflect Simone’s, but she had on ‘blackface’ in order to darken her complexion because, once again, her skin tone did not reflect Simone’s. It would’ve been so easy to simply cast a dark-skinned actor who resembled the singer but instead an actress in blackface, a fake nose and a horrendous accent is somehow the safer option? In what world did it make sense that Zoe Saldana would be the actor to bring Simone to new audiences?

(left to right) Nina Simone vs Zoe Saldanas portryal

Don’t just take it from me but from Clarkisha Kent, a film critic and entertainment writer. When asked about colourism within Hollywood she had this to say,

“ Hollywood is not late [to colourism].They just don’t care. They associate money and youth with light skin, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing it. Black Hollywood does this too. And until there are consequences for doing this, they won’t stop. X-Men is a great example of this. Someone was kind enough to put all the X-men colorist castings in one diagram and it was disgusting. Storm. Sunspot. Celia Reyes. You name it. All cast by lightskinned or White-passing people. Reyes and Sunspot are especially bad because of Afro-Latinx erasure and because Sunspot was SO DARK, that they tackled racism in one of his issues.”

“It [ Black Panther] was definitely a watershed moment and gives people something to point to saying that, “Well if ‘BP’ can get it right, so can you.” That said, until we can establish a pattern, it will remain an exception to Hollywood’s colorist rule.”

Editor: Chichi Amaena

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