I write about culture from a pro-Black perspective

Burden of Representation or a Structural Problem in Hollywood?

Adam Thompson of the great Shadow and Act asks:

So here’s the $64,000 question: Isn’t performance, rather than race, the true representation? When a talented actor delivers a masterful performance and creates an indelible character, does it matter if the role was “negative” or saccharine sweet? Should Washington and other actors of color be forced to play some variation of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life throughout their careers? Do they not “represent” by showing that we can be good, bad and everything in between while neither confirming hard stereotypes or slipping into caricature (see The Wire)? Does bad always mean bad, and does it reflect on our race as much as some believe?

I’ve grown as weary as I think most black people have of the burden of representation. I’m not interested in holding actors to a standard of bettering the race or not embarrassing black people in front of white audiences.

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Posted on December 6th, 2012 - Filed under Film,Television
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On the Color Caste, or; Are You Light Enough in Here?

I’ve often said to folks that the biggest thing holding black folks back was not racism or white supremacist thought, but the degree to which we have collectively internalized racism and white supremacist thought.

There is a difference.

In most circles, internalized racism is known solely as self-hatred. But this is a very amorphous term, self-hatred. In reality, the politics of race, gender, and class are understood to be much more complex. A lot of black people do wonderful things for the community, mentor young blacks, live “upstanding” lives, but still unconsciously uphold white supremacist ideals.

This is most prevalent in the realm of aesthetic beauty. Bre22 We as black people, far more than white folks it would seem, have bought into white supremacist beauty standards. And it is such a widespread phenomena that entire industries base their decisions on how much we devalue black beauty.

What this means is that black folks who have Eurocentric features are far more likely to be successful, both in the larger culture and the black community, than those who’s features are coded as “African” or “ethnic”.

The success of Beyonce is a well-known testament to this fact. Matthew Knowles studied well from the Berry Gordy school of economics. Destiny’s Child was created so that any of the four (then, three) girls could be a little girl’s favorite. This is why all the girls’ hair color, especially in the beginning, was different. But Matthew Knowles knew that Beyonce, as the lightest, would be the most “captivating” girl — simply because she was lightest. So she was made the front-woman. And she was lightened in magazines and given blonde hair.


This was very purposeful on Matthew Knowles’ part. It was not just some arbitrary decision. It was a conscious choice. He understood the color struck black bourgeoisie and White America. He knew black folks would hail her as a beauty, the way Halle was hailed before her. He also knew little white girls would see a little of themselves in her and “identify.”

Let’s face it, there is a reason that Halle Berry, Beyonce, and Alicia Keys are the only black women to get on the covers of major magazines last year — they are relatively light-skinned women.

Of course, the tragic irony is that all three of these women are darker than they appear in magazines. They are always lightened for magazines, particularly when featured in a high-end magazine.

Now, it’s important to impress upon people that a discussion of the way in which light-skinned women are perceived is not to slight their talent or their skill or their accomplishments. We must begin to understand the reality that the avenues to success are not the same for all black people. Light-skinned women are accepted as beautiful before darker-skinned women.

This was readily apparent in the most recent season of America’s Next Top Model. The last three finalists were Nicole (a white girl with brown hair), Nik (a light-skinned black girl, possibly biracial, with blondish hair), and Bre (a dark-skinned black girl from Harlem).

Bre was always presented as angry and unrelenting. And she was always coded as “street.” Every single time she came before Tyra and the judges, euphemisms for “dark” and “black” were used to describe her. And such descriptions were both good and bad depending, mostly, on how her competitors were judged. So when the white girls were kinda bland or boring or generic, Bre’s “edginess” made her standout. When the other girls were “fierce”, then Bre was “too edgy”.

What this means is that while the other girls were competing against each other, Bre was competing against the other girls and herself — her blackness.

Bre8 Bre88 We have to become aware of the way that competition was set up to be much more difficult for Bre. The last competition was a Cover Girl photo shoot. Cover Girl, for decades, didn’t use black models–of any hue. Cover girls are the “all-American girl”, which is nearly always coded as “white.”

Now, the reality that Cover Girl doesn’t even make products for darker complexions should be a well-known fact and should have been a signal to viewers of the show that something was off about the competition.

Of course, Bre wouldn’t win. Not over Nicole and Nik who are the kind of “look” that one normally associates with Cover Girl.

Many responses to this season talked about racism but only because Nik wasn’t picked. The reality that on BET.com and other black websites, black folks were saying Tyra was racist for not picking Nik is a sad testament to the reality that we so narrowly understand the complexity of racism and how we’ve internalized it.

For most black people, Bre’s loss made sense. She wasn’t good enough. She was too “edgy.” She had “too much attitude.” She was too “street.” Nearly every blog or webposting or review talked about Bre as having “too much attitude” as if models are the sweetest girls on the planet.

All this means is that Bre was too black.




A friend of mine, Mikey , told me that there have been more dark-skinned supermodels than light-skinned and that means that Nik should have won. He is right.

But what folks have to understand about skin colors in modeling is that dark-skinned models were always shown to be exotic, not beautiful. Exoticization is not beauty. They are not synonyms. When it comes to beauty, or white supremacist standards of beauty, dark-skinned women are at a disadvantage.

Bre could never have won that contest. It was designed to be unfair to her. Whether or not it was purposeful is irrelevant. That is what internalized racism means; it’s not on purpose.

Tyra, as the executive producer, would probably say that Bre wasn’t “versatile” enough. This is just sidestepping the issue. The reality is that the show was rigged to make the competition harder for Bre. Tyra knows better than anyone how hard it is for darker-skinned models and she played the game well for the last 15 or so years (with the weave and sublimating black vernacular in her speech).

Now that she’s retired, she’s crying on her talk show about how hard it was for her and how she wants to make it easier. But she’s not doing that. She’s playing by the rules of the modeling industry that says if you are non-white you better look a little white or work the weave. And if you are black, you can’t be “too black.”

Darker-skinned women shouldn’t have to be “versatile.” They shouldn’t have to sublimate their blackness and try to look “all-American.” Who they are should be enough. A diversity of beauty should be celebrated. Black beauty should not be acceptable only when it can be exoticized or “enhanced” by a few European features.

With people of color there are only two routes you can go in the modeling world — emphasize European features (in photos or with blonde hair or straight hair of any color) or exoticize non-European features.

This is what happened with the early darker-skinned models like Iman and Beverly Johnson where their blackness was always coded in opposition to white beauty, as exotic because it wasn’t white beauty. Black folks think of it as just beauty, but in reality we did passively understand that the politics of opposition reinstates, reinforces, that whiteness is still the barometer of beauty, the penultimate.

Darker-skinned models’ exoticization only serves to reinscribe the primacy of white beauty.

I say all this not to say that light-skinned women don’t deserve their success. But we must begin to understand how we enable such success to occur by our overvaluing of lighter-skin. We need to understand that we don’t champion our darker-hued women with talent enough. We need to, as my boy Mikey says, “love the spectrum” of blackness.

What that means is we need to have a darker counterpart to Beyonce, to Halle, to Alicia. It shouldn’t be darker-skin = less sexy. But it is.

We need to change that.

There is a reason that 702 didn’t explode, beyond discussions of whether or not their songs were any good. Meelah is a beautiful dark-skinned woman. As such, she doesn’t have the same “appeal” that Beyonce did as lead singer of Destiny’s Child.

The fact that we even have to “choose” is a testament to how the larger culture pits us against one another and only allows one person of color at the top at a time. It is perfectly legitimate to like both 702 and Destiny’s Child, but that needs to occur to a degree that 702’s label would feel obligated to promote 702 as much as Destiny’s Child is promoted. So they would be on “equal” footing.

With black artists, there is usually one star and then a bunch of “lesser talented” “lesser attractive” people pulling up the rear.

Why can’t they all be on the same level, whatever that level may be?

What that means is, we need to show more love for darker-skinned people. This is not unfair. What you are doing is balancing the scale. It’s called equity. By doing so, you are not devaluing lighter-skinned.

Think of it like a seesaw. For centuries light-skin has been getting all the love and reaping the rewards of society. Dark skin has been undervalued. So that means that the end with light skin on it is on the ground with dark in the air. By adding more dark to the side of the seesaw with dark skin on it you start to level the seesaw.

This is equity. You aren’t lessening light skin, you are balancing.

Posted on January 7th, 2006 - Filed under Culture,Music
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Oscars 2005 or Yes Massa, I Wanna Work in the Big House

Three years ago, I found myself watching the Oscars and tearing up at Halle Berry’s profoundly radical acceptance speech. For her to link her personal triumph to the struggle for black women in the arts was a daring and historical moment. And her genuine surprise, humility and courage stood as a model for how black celebrities could behave in such instances.

Given the wins of Morgan Freeman (a very deserved Best Supporting for his brilliance in Million Dollar Baby) and Jamie Foxx (a very deserved Best Actor for Ray), one would think that the Academy has woken up to the abundance of talent in the black acting community.

But I do not think that is the case. I think that what wins black people major awards are good parts, good scripts, and great characters. And until there are an abundance of good parts, good scripts, and great characters for black actors, Oscars are going to continue to be a rarity.

More importantly though, the great characters that win awards are great characters that reinforce stereotypes held by the general public and further entrench the status quo of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (a term coined by Ms. bell hooks). Every major acting award won by a black actor fits this mold. Great character that is subservient to the white power structure/stereotype.

And I’m supposed to be happy that, although Monster’s Ball is a terrific film about resisting patriarchy, Leticia (Halle Berry) is merely a tool through which the white man(Billy Bob Thornton) realizes his racist attitudes are unhealthy, are killing him. Again and again, black women’s bodies are the sites where white men play out their fantasies, their lives. Similar to the transvestite character in The Crying Game, Leticia exists solely to bring about the change and radical break from patriarchy’s grip of a white man.

And seriously, after breathtaking work in Mississippi Masala, Malcolm X, Mo Better Blues, Courage Under Fire, The Hurricane, He Got Game, Philadelphia and The Pelican Brief, am I really to believe that the best leading performance Denzel Washington has given is in Training Day?

Is that really what I’m supposed to believe? Both he and Freeman won awards based on good will and Hollywood felt most comfortable giving them a “we know you’ve done a lot of good work, accept this as appreciation for it all” Oscar. But it is worth noting how both these characters reinforce systems of domination.

Morgan Freeman is playing, essentially, a eunuch/servant role subservient to Clint Eastwood’s character. He has no agency, no life outside of his relationship to Eastwood. Similarly, the relationship he builds with Hilary Swank’s character calls to mind the relationships depicted in Shirley Temple movies between Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Worse still, is the falsely “evil” representation of Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day. We are led to believe, through the eyes of Ethan Hawke’s character, that Washington is just a dirty cop, a real evil guy. But in the one moment that is neutral (not seen through Hawke) we see the pressure on Washington from the white capitalist patriarchy embodied by aging white men.

This could have been a turning point in the film, where we could see how black men are pressured into illegal and extralegal behavior, or how the system is fucked so we fuck it back. This doesn’t happen. A simplistic moral dichotomy is set up with Hawke (the pure white “good” cop) versus Washington (the evil black “bad” cop). Denzel is shrewd in his performance; he never plays the character as evil. Not for a second. But the racist promotional campaign, led to great receipts, coupled with great reviews that pay no mind to the racist way the character is written and….tada!!! Long overdue Oscar, meet Denzel Washington.

Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles was everything a great performance should be. But the film spent a lot of time on Ray Charles as a sexual predator and nowhere near enough time on his musicianship. However, I do think that, compared to the other performances by black actors recently, this one is the one that is most likely to have been won on merit alone. The fact that Jamie Foxx had a great year in 2004 (the Kanye West collabo, Slow Jams, notwithstanding) made it much easier to see that his performance as Ray Charles wasn’t just a fluke.

I wonder, then, if we as black people put too much stock in white approval. Just this morning I saw an article on Jamie and Morgan in Jet magazine. Now the Ebony/Jet style of writing is clearly bourgeois, “white-is-right” pandering, but this article seemed more overt in its “whitey is finally accepting us” tone.

I don’t think I’m oversensitive because were the integrity of black films important to black people then films like Soul Plane wouldn’t be the only ones opening to big numbers.

Where is the love for Brother to Brother, Eve’s Bayou and The Caveman’s Valentine from the black community? It’s never stated but the black bourgeois loves to laud the films that depict black people as the same as white people (The Best Man and the like). But what they really mean when they say that is that they love that the signifiers and stereotypes that white people respond to are erased or they are played for farce.

(For instance, Taye Diggs’ Harper in The Best Man saying to Morris Chestnut’s Lance, “I’m gonna blow her back out!” is funny because Harper is supposed to be the “most bourgeois of the men.” He doesn’t understand why Murch works with troubled kids if he’s not getting paid, for instance. This is statement funny because he spends the film distancing himself from “negative blackness”, looks down upon his own people and their struggle but straddles “crosses back over” when it’s time to “get down” with his boys.)

What is more important is that black people as artists continue to diversify, not just in producing the latest barbershop trendy movie, or the latest ghetto farce (All About the Benjamins, Soul Plane, etc), but in diversifying and supporting a multitude of black films. The Wills and Jadas, Halles and Jamies need to show up at black film festivals and make their celebrity mean more than just which white stars they know. The Nias and Morrises, Angelas and Laurences need to produce more than just films from great black literature that they “whitewash”.

The Morgans and Denzels, Wesleys and Sanaas need to create vibrant, radical new images of black people that will not just win them awards, but win them the respect and love of their people for more than just breaking the glass ceiling and sitting in the big house with their nice shiny trophies.

Posted on September 27th, 2005 - Filed under Film
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