While Hollywood can be filled with drama, the only media-worthy shade in this piece is the shade of actors’ and actresses’ skin. Colorism. In the entertainment industry it appears that lighter skin takes precedence over all other factors, and when darker skinned actors are given opportunities, they’re superficial stereotypes.
Colorism isn’t something that came out of the blue, either. Hollywood began as a white-only industry, and when folks from marginalized communities were integrated and cast in lead roles, they had European features or were white-passing to continue its white legacy. Even while actors of color were available, white was — and still is — standard, so much that there is a list of “25 Times White Actors Played People Of Color.” With only three out of 10 lead actors in film being people of color, representation — especially for those who are darker skinned — should be a priority in the entertainment industry.
Even now, in shows that preach representation like “Grown-ish” with an all-Black cast, for a long time, there was a visible lack of darker skinned people, until Ryan Destiny was recently added in January, two years after the show’s start. This is a topic many overlook and while some aren’t aware of colorism in film and television, I think it’s time to talk about it, so who better to speak on the issues than Black and Indigenous people and people of color majoring in various aspects of the film industry at USC?
Colorism on screen is extremely prevalent in groups of people of color. In most films and television shows, lighter skin is favored and equated to the beauty standard. In the Latinx community, telenovelas and other programming feature those who are lighter, and for Jostin Soto-Garcia, an Afro-Dominican senior majoring in cinema media studies, this didn’t represent the diverse community he experienced every day.
“All the people there [in media] were fairly fair skinned, whether they were Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican — and even though a lot of the time they sounded like us and they spoke like us, they didn’t exactly look like us,” Soto-Garcia said.
This is even seen in blockbuster movies such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” where while everyone was celebrating an all-Asian cast, diversity of skin tone and background was overlooked. This was the case for Matt Oflas, a Filipino sophomore majoring in film and television production, who later realized that he couldn’t see himself in the highly acclaimed film.
“When ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ came out it was such a huge thing for me, and now that it’s been a couple years and I’ve had time to reflect on it,” Oflas said. “I look back on that film, and I don’t see myself that much … They did have a Filipino character in there, but it was a side character.”
This tends to happen a lot when books are turned into films, much like in “The Hate U Give,” which features a darker skinned Black girl on the cover, and stars Amandla Stenberg, a lighter skinned actor. Once Sade Famuyiwa, a junior majoring in cinema and media studies, realized that the film didn’t have personal representation like the book had, her anticipation for it diminished.
“On the cover of the book was a darker skinned girl, but they cast [Stenberg], and [that] made me not as excited about the film,” Famuyiwa said. “I probably would have been, if they actually did cast a darker skinned girl for that role.”
Though Hollywood and the media have the tendency to favor lighter skin, when darker skinned people are cast, they are usually in roles that are inferior. For Black actors and actresses, this has been the case for centuries like that of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy — a housemaid — in “Gone with the Wind” or Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann — a childless maternal-like woman in “Ma.”
“For us, Hollywood was always white, light skinned,” said Destinee McCaster, a sophomore majoring in film and television production. “When it did involve Black people, they were viewed as the slaves or the helpers or the assistants or the supporting characters, and that’s kind of been so consistent and just modernized over and over again in Hollywood. It’s never been reformed or deconstructed.”
And all the while darker skinned people are put in roles that are subservient, or more antagonistic, the same ideas are being perpetuated in animation. This can be seen in Disney’s “The Proud Family” where school bullies, the Gross sisters, were drawn in darker shades of blue, or in “Mulan” where the Hun tribe were drawn in dark shades of gray.
In the media industry, European beauty is seemingly the marker of marketability and what many believe sells to a larger audience. The telling of white stories for peak viewer relatability, though, obviously doesn’t act as representation for every person.
“Hollywood is a business, so they have to sell to the majority audience and their audience is mostly white,” Oflas said. “If we want to tell relatable stories that will appeal to major audiences, we need to have actors and characters on the screen who look like these audiences.”
There has been the argument made that if television shows had main characters that were played by people of color that it wouldn’t be marketable to large audiences because it would be considered too niche or culturally deep for everyone to understand. What doesn’t make sense though is every other community that isn’t white has grown up watching television shows that have white protagonists and storylines, and while that was the majority of programming, most found it relatable.
In times where people from underrepresented communities are featured in films, they are usually in a supporting role opposite a white protagonist like Frozone in “The Incredibles” or Ned Leeds in “Spiderman: Homecoming.” In the case of the Netflix series the “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” Sabrina’s best friend is a Black woman named Rosalind Walker, and for some, her inclusion was questioned on the basis of diversity or clout.
“It’s still very ingrained in people to expect a non person of color to play main characters, especially supporting characters,” McCaster said. “There’s like a supporting character curse, in my opinion, for people of color … It balances that line of making progress on something, but then you always wonder whether that progress is to gain followers or to be there to show that … these stories should be told.”
Outside of the side-character curse, it also seems as though the same actors are cast over and over again. In many recent young adult films and shows, much of the casting of Black women has been given to lighter skinned actresses, again playing into that narrative of light skin seeming more palatable to audiences. This is especially disheartening when there are talented darker skinned actresses out there, and, as Amara Chimezie, a sophomore majoring in arts, technology and the business of innovation pointed out, many opportunities too.
“[Zendaya has] been given opportunities that a darker skinned or racially ambiguous woman of color would not have been given,” Chimezie said. “Whenever we’re looking at a Black woman in Hollywood, it’s always Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg and Yara Shahidi … It definitely affects what kinds of people are getting different opportunities [and] which kinds of opportunities.”
Funnily enough, both Stenberg and Shahidi have been featured in films that were under fire for whitewashing the darker-skinned characters that were in the books: “The Hate U Give” and “The Sun Is Also A Star.”
Though colorism may seem like an issue that finds its way on screen and through representation, it also bleeds into the way society operates and how people view others. It influences how people from marginalized communities are perceived in real life, especially by people who aren’t from diverse communities and don’t have the opportunity to interact with different groups of people; many are reliant on media for this.
“Coming from [an] immigrant community in New York, to achieve a certain level of social mobility, or assimilation, here in this country, you have to go into white spaces at some point, because that’s where the power structure lies,” Soto-Garcia said. “Whereas those who were already born into that world and social circles with that privilege, [they] don’t have to know what the other one is.”
Subsequently, when organizing a method to make USC a better experience for other students, Famuyiwa found that the alumni she had reached out to were more attentive to her lighter-skinned counterpart. She felt that she was being perceived like the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype, which, in turn, made her feel even worse.
“It felt like we were both giving really important ideas for change, but she was just taken more seriously, despite the fact that we were both Black and dealt with [similar] experiences,” Famuyiwa said. “Sometimes I’d be really passionate about something, and people would interpret it as angry because I’m not light skinned.”
With representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color being so sparse, especially for those who are darker skinned, change is a priority for many underrepresented groups in the film and TV industries.
Chimezie, along with many others, hopes to create stories with accurate representation where people from underrepresented communities aren’t featured in the same stereotypes and tropes continuously, but can have unlimited storylines like many white actors and actresses have.
“I’m sick of seeing the only person who looks like me, or is Black, on screen is getting shot by the police or they’re a slave,” Chimezie said. “I just want to see stories where Black people are happy and chilling, or have a crush on a boy, or are living or going to a magical school or have superpowers. I just want to see those films. So, I’m just gonna make those films for all Black people.”
For marginalized groups in the film space, as much as representation in front of the camera is important, so is representation behind it. The best way to explain this is with the 2020 Disney film, “Mulan.” While the film was telling the centuries-old story of a Chinese woman with Asian leads, the creative team was full of white people including the director, screenwriters and costume designer. How can a group of white people accurately tell a story about a community they are not from? They can’t.
“There’s obviously an issue there,” Oflas said. “And I think that needs to change. Because once you get minorities and people with darker skin colors on the creative team behind the camera, they’re telling these stories. They’re the ones making these stories authentic. They’ll be able to tell it in the most authentic way.”
This is extremely important for people like Oflas who may find themselves in spaces where they, along with a few others, may be the only people in a room that look like each other. Oflas, who is in a cohort with about 60 other people, mentions how he is only one of three Filipinos there, so it was important to form a community to network and bridge the gap of being an underrepresented person in that space.
“I found those people and I became really close with them [and] I just created a community,” Oflas said. “[It’s important to create] those circles in those communities for storytellers of color to support each other, interact with each other and work together to create these stories and represent the people who look like us.”
Darker skinned Black and Indigenous people and people of color shouldn’t have to remain in the shadows of their lighter counterparts. We need to see representation of skin tone on screen and behind the camera so that these stories are accurately told. What isn’t fair is the lack of darker skin in Hollywood … oh, and the diverse actors and actresses Hollywood will start casting too, right?
Marlize Duncan is a sophomore writing about overlooked USC Black and Indigenous creatives and creatives of color tackling the intersection of their work & minority social issues. Her column, “The Minority Support,” typically ran every other Tuesday.