Given films are beginning to (finally) be marketed towards more diverse audiences, a lot of people are starting to wonder if the barrier up for filmmakers and actors of color can truly be broken down. And while I think it’s great that actors of color are getting more opportunities, there’s one thing that’s being left out of the conversation that I think is very important and of value: the preference for lighter-skinned performers.
It has become a tradition in Hollywood to only cast lighter-skinned actors and call it representation of a specific race. This is done because lighter skin is still considered physically attractive and of value, because of its proximity to whiteness. It is not uncommon; you have all seen it. It often happens with actresses of color, but actors are affected by it too. Hollywood, missing the opportunity to cast someone of a darker complexion – people who are barely represented, period – will go for the lightest possible color, and people will consider it groundbreaking when really, it isn’t.
First, we will take three examples of this in recent pop culture, and then I’ll explain not only my personal problems with it, but how it contributes to racism and colorism in the industry.
The first example that comes to mind is the upcoming live-action adaptation of Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie. Despite the fact that we barely got them to correctly cast the movie based on ethnicity, race and region (I’m looking at you, Naomi Scott), every single actor associated with the project is of lighter skin complexion, where most of the characters were brown or even dark-skinned in the original animated movie. Dark-skinned representation among Black people is rare, but among non-Black people of color, it’s even further and fewer between. When was the last time you saw a dark-skinned Middle Easterner starring in a Hollywood film, or a dark-skinned Asian? Probably never.
The troubling thing with Aladdin, though, is that there’s preexisting source material that has already defined these characters as dark-skinned. A lot of dark-skinned Middle Eastern/Arabic people identify with Aladdin and Jasmine, and to see them be robbed of that representation is disappointing. Disney could’ve been a trailblazer in this area, but of course they chose to fall back into old Hollywood ways, even adding a white actor into the mix for a role that never existed in the original animated movie.
The next example – and boy, is this one controversial – is the upcoming adaptation of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This is a popular book if I ever saw one. It’s topped the charts for weeks now, and for good reason. It is the story of a young girl who witnesses the murder of one of her best friends due to police brutality, and is put in a position of incredible fear when she has to tell the world what really happened with his murder. It’s a classic prep school tale meets Black Lives Matter, and Hollywood could very easily ruin this one, so keep your eyes on it.
But it looks like they’ve already fumbled out of the gate by casting Amandla Stenberg as the lead, Starr Carter. Now, I’m sure some of you are furiously typing that the author, Angie Thomas, has cosigned Amandla’s casting and is 100% okay with it, and that’s great! I’m happy that she’s happy, and don’t get me wrong, I will definitely see and support The Hate U Give, as it’s an amazing book with an increasingly amazing cast (they just added Issa Rae and Common, for crying out loud!). But no one can deny that they had an opportunity to cast a young actress of darker skin complexion. I mean, they exist. No one could’ve given China Anne-McClain or Skai Jackson a call?
Also: in Spider-Man Homecoming, Sony’s latest attempt at giving the webslinger a film franchise, which was celebrated for its diversity and inclusion, the cast is overwhelmingly lightskinned. Zendaya, God bless her, plays Mary Jane (spoiler) – and that’s fine, but couldn’t Laura Harrier’s character Liz Allan, Peter’s love interest in the film, have been dark-skinned? And maybe a bit younger?
Even in the upcoming Deadpool 2, which has cast Zazie Beetz as Domino (who looks amazing, by the way), you have to wonder if the light-skin, white-eyepatch would’ve been a more compelling choice if they’d gone with a darker skinned actress.
Some of you might be asking why this is a problem. If people of color are represented at all, shouldn’t that be a victory? Well – yes and no. It’s a victory, but representation is inclusive of ALL people from a certain demographic. You can’t only cast light-skinned, skinny, attractive Black women in films and call that representation. What about dark-skinned Black women? What about fat Black women? What about conventionally unattractive, Afrocentric Black women? Where is the representation for them?
This is a problem because Hollywood is literally trying to recreate whiteness the best way they can. “She’s not white, but she’s as close to white as possible!” is not representation. Ideally, people of ALL shades and skin tones would be given equal opportunities.
Hopefully, this is a problem that is resolved in the future. I don’t know if my calling attention to it will change anything, but I do know one thing: colorism is a problem and Hollywood is doing nothing to stop it from happening.