Hollywood’s Pervasive Color Problem

 

The book cover of “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (on the left) featured a dark-skinned Black girl while the movie adaption stars a light-skinned actress (on the right).

By Anne Tchuindje

Washington, D.C.

The critically acclaimed movie “The Hate U Give” began as a book. It’s the story of Starr Carter, a young Black girl who tries to balance two worlds—her low-income Black neighborhood and her wealthy white prep school—while still fighting misogyny and racism. On the cover of the book, the illustrator draws Starr Carter as a Black girl with Afro-textured hair and brown skin. The actress who plays Starr in the movie, Amandla Stenberg, is a lighter-skinned Black girl with braids.

Stenberg’s casting is an example of a lack of diversity in Hollywood that new awareness about race and representation has yet to fix: colorism. The term means “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, including prejudice held by members of their own ethnic or racial group.”

People of color have slowly, but surely, made a significant impact on the big screen. Diversity, especially in Hollywood, allows people from different backgrounds to see themselves reflected in popular culture. But when it comes to the representation of darker-skinned Black people, the movies haven’t made much progress. Executives tend to hire lighter-skinned actors to play Black roles, or to consider darker-skinned actors only for roles that fulfill a specific stereotype. Until colorism is addressed within the filmmaking industry, there will never be true diversity.

The illustrator of “The Hate U Give,” Debra Cartwright, has said in interviews that she “wasn’t thrilled” about the choice of Stenberg to play Starr. In a meeting with Fox, executives told her that they’d have to lighten her illustration, and “change the hair.”

Author Angie Thomas also criticized the colorism infecting the film adaptation, which omits the references to colorism in the Black community expressed in her original book. “It’s disheartening, because I do feel like so much money was thrown behind the movie, and so much marketing was thrown behind it,” Thomas said. “You can tell who Hollywood is pushing to be in the limelight, and everybody knows it has a lot to do with appearance, but it also is still being driven a bit by colorism.”

“The Hate U Give” is far from the only example. Among others, actress Zendaya has spoken up about issues of colorism within Hollywood and admitted to having a privilege over her “dark skin brothers and sisters.” She vowed to continue to use her platform to bring attention to issues of colorism within the industry. “Guardians of the Galaxy” actress Zoe Saldana, cast in the role of singer and songwriter Nina Simone despite her lighter skin and looser hair texture, expressed great regret for playing the role.

“I should have never played Nina,” Saldana said. “I should have done everything in my power with the leverage that I had 10 years ago, which was a different leverage, but it was leverage nonetheless.”

Colorism is also apparent in animated movies. In recent Disney films, a variety of princesses from different backgrounds and cultures have been featured— and through each movie we witness the development of each princess as she embarks on an adventure that ultimately changes her life forever. But colorism remains.

In “The Princess and the Frog,” the first Disney film to depict an African American princess, main character Tiana was trapped in the form of an animal for over 80 percent of the movie. Disney’s decision to make this princess a frog throughout the movie is not only racist, but colorist, in the sense that this plot is only used in a movie containing a dark-skinned princess.

Issues of colorism within Hollywood do not only affect who is cast to play roles, but also how they tell the story of those they play. When Hollywood does cast dark-skinned actors, they are given less screen time or made to play demeaning characters; for instance, dark skin characters make frequent appearances as maids and servants. It’s important to cast actors and actresses of darker skin in order to show more diversity, be more inclusive, and break down these stereotypes.

We need stories that spotlight more people within the Black community. Actors and actresses with a platform and leverage should give other actors and actresses of darker skin tones more opportunities and voices within casting decisions. Representation within film builds character and identity for Black people.

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