Beautiful Dark and Light Our Roles: The Complexities of Color in Movies & Real Life
By TaRessa Stovall @taressatalks
Last week light-skinned, Biracial actress Amandla Stenberg (“The Hunger Games,” “Everything is Everything”) made headlines when she said she’d been auditioning for the role of King T’Challa’s younger sister Princess Shuri in the global blockbuster phenomenon “Black Panther,” but decided to drop out so that a darker-skinned actress could play the part of Wakanda’s tech genius. The role went to breakout star Letitia Wright, a brown-skinned Guyanese actress who grew up in London.
“One of the most challenging things for me to do was to walk away from Black Panther,” Amandla stated in Vanity Fair. “I got really, really close and they were like, ‘Do you want to continue fighting for this?’ And I was like, this isn’t right … These are all dark-skinned actors playing Africans, and I feel like it would have just been off to see me as a Biracial American … just pretending that I’m the same color as everyone else in the movie … I recognize 100 percent that there are spaces that I should not take up and when I do take up a space it’s because I’ve thought really, really critically about it and I’ve consulted people I really trust and it feels right.”
I was intrigued by two dramatically very different responses to her announcement.
The women in one of my Mixed-race Facebook groups—most of whom are on the lighter-side of the skin spectrum—were almost uniformly understanding and very supportive of Amandla’s decision and the reason she gave for making that choice. Including myself. I saw it as a refreshing example of how to challenge colorism in mainstream entertainment, and admired the young actress for her outspoken awareness.
The responses were very different on a Black woman friend’s Facebook page. While a few lone folks felt as I did and expressed support for Stenberg’s statement, many seemed to feel she was being condescending in saying that she stepped back to let a darker-skinned actress have the role, when it wasn’t clear how close she might have been to being offered the role in the first place. Some people complained that by mentioning the dynamic of colorism, she was perpetrating divisions in the Black community. And many felt she was using a questionable situation to call unnecessary attention to herself in what felt like blatant self-aggrandizement.
My first thought was that Amandla—who might have been dragged online if she had been offered and accepted a role in the film (depending on the role and the type of African culture she might have represented)—had possibly learned from light-skinned Dominican-Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana’s disastrous attempt to portray Nina Simone in a biopic. No matter how good Saldana’s performance or the overall movie might have been, it was doomed before release by widespread public dismay and disgust over the fact that Saldana not only didn’t have the consciousness to turn down the role of the dark-skinned music icon, but wore blackface and a prosthetic nose to do so. While this situation revolved around the portrayal of a real-life legend, the colorism dynamics are always relevant.
Or Amandla might have followed the recent online conversations about whether light-skinned Biracial actress Alexandra Shipp should play the comic book-based superhero Storm in the X-Men franchise. As The Mary Sue blog outlines, Halle Berry played Storm in the first X-Men film in 2000, after winning both Golden Globe and Emmy awards for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. The blog reports that Angela Bassett declined to play Storm. “So, when it came out that they were going to be recasting Storm for Age of Apocalypse, people were excited to see Storm done again and done right … For a lot of people, this meant having Storm be a darker-skinned Black woman …calling out colorism in Hollywood, and the choices being made, doesn’t mean we are calling out or dismissing the Black experiences of Mixed-race or lighter-skinned Black women. However, it means being aware that there are biases in place.”
The choice of Alexandra Shipp to play a younger Storm in the latest film was disappointing, The Mary Sue blog explains. “While Storm’s complexion has changed over the years and depending on the artist, recent versions have made it clear that she is on the darker side complexion wise. Somewhere between Gabrielle Union and Lupita if you need a reference. As Storm is one of the most powerful and most desirable women in the Marvel Universe … to have her be dark-skinned in a society that created phrases like ‘you’re pretty for a dark girl’ would be unbelievably powerful.”
In that context, did Amandla Stenberg make the right choice by bowing out of “Black Panther? Or was her biggest offense describing that decision publicly?
This issue is much bigger and more urgent than any actor’s alleged choices or statements about those choices. Amandla Stenberg is simply the most recent high-profile player in a game that stretches back centuries through much of our national and personal history, and our individual and collective ancestry and DNA. It also winds throughout the 90 years of American motion pictures.
Whether it’s popular or not, in order to break the stranglehold of colorism in our communities, we’re going to have to find ways to talk WITH—and not just AT and ABOUT—each other. This isn’t going to be easy—there are deep wellsprings of trauma, sorrow, resentment and rage from efforts to pit light-and-dark-skinned people against each other. The more energy we expend beefing with each other, the less we have to unite and work together for progress and positive change.
We can’t begin to confront colorism until we find ways to put aside our differences and build upon our commonalities. To do so means to face an ugly truth: that we’ve allowed ourselves to be played against each other to the point where White Supremacy has us on cruise control.
I’m not saying that this can be fixed by superficial feel-good conversations, then joining hands to sing, “We Shall Overcome,” and poof! All wrongs will be instantly righted and all colorism issues solved. Nor do I pretend to have a blueprint for eradicating this aspect of racism. But I know that we have to face it honestly and at least try to wrestle colorism to the ground. We’ve got to challenge the normalcy of the sliding scale of privilege based on proximity to Whiteness. And as the historic global success of “Black Panther” illustrates, the specifics of representation matter a great deal.
I maintain that if Amandla’s comments are accurate, then stepping down from such an opportunity was a wise move in the direction of acknowledging colorism in order to work towards healing. And these words of hers in particular sum up one of the ways that we who have Light-Skinned Privilege can consider the opportunities that come our way: “I recognize 100 percent that there are spaces that I should not take up.” This acknowledges the way that colorism operates, while articulating a space for us to respect these nasty truths, and stepping out of situations that perpetuate the racist status quo.
As for the speculation and criticism about how close Amandla might have gotten to being offered any role in “Black Panther,” that’s simply not important. I would have made the very same decision that she described. Maybe announcing the decision struck some folks as tacky and/or condescending. But on the flip side, let’s consider that the symbolic value of her gesture is what we need to be spotlighting. It just might have the potential to set a precedent and give others an example of how to raise awareness by taking a personal stand on tough issues and standing tall in the face of certain criticism—not just in relation to characters onscreen, but in real life, too.