We’re days away from the release of “Black Panther,” and all I can think about is how emotionally unprepared I am for it. Common reasons for this include not having seen a movie with a black superhero lead in about 20 years (no, I am not counting “Catwoman” and “Hancock”) and the fact that my simultaneously Nigerian-American and black American self is not ready to have my complex experience validated on screen.
Another really big reason “Black Panther” is going to be an emotional roller coaster is the number of dark-skinned black women who were cast front and center for this film.
It doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal, but it is, especially considering the uncomfortable relationship that we — black people both here and abroad, even in the motherland — have with the insidious force known as colorism.
Colorism is defined as the discrimination, bias or prejudice leveled against folks with darker skin tones. And that phenomenon usually occurs among folks of the same racial or ethnic background. Even brown-skinned people, who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum from light-skinned and dark-skinned, are not spared from colorism.
This is why “Black Panther” is sort of an anomaly. Based on everything we know about colorism, who it affects, and what exactly feeds into it, we wouldn’t expect that many (or really any) dark-skinned and brown-skinned actresses would appear in “Black Panther.”
And yet there are. And here’s why it matters:
‘Black Panther’ goes out of its way to cast dark-skinned women in every single role that calls for a woman — including the love interest.
Dark-skinned and brown-skinned black women are abundant in the movie. You can see it in the background characters, the promotional material and in the much-talked-about Dora Milaje — an elite team of female bodyguards that defer to our good King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman. And every single significant speaking role has been cast with a dark-skinned or brown-skinned actress.
There’s Letitia Wright as Princess Shuri (T’Challa’s sister), Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda (his mother/stepmother), Danai Gurira as Okoye (leader of the Dora Milaje), Florence Kasumba as an elite member of the Dora Milaje (and the scene stealer that personally accompanied T’Challa to America in “Captain America: Civil War”), and Lupita Nyong’o as super spy Nakia (also a member of the Dora Milaje and T’Challa’s love interest).
Every single woman in T’Challa’s life is either dark-skinned or brown-skinned: His sister. Momma. Bodyguards.
It’s a huge deal. And perhaps the biggest deal of all is Nyong’o, a dark-skinned woman, playing T’Challa’s love interest.
I know many people in real life that have mothers, sisters and friends with skin darker than 100 percent cocoa, and who are the same hue themselves, yet wouldn’t be caught dead getting romantically involved with a dark-skinned black woman. Some people proudly proclaim their affinity for “redbones” and disdain for “dark meat.” That kind of thinking, the abhorrence of dark-skinned women, is deeply entrenched in our culture. And if you don’t believe me, a dark-skinned black woman, consider what Mathew Knowles, a dark-skinned black man, recently had to say on the matter. Knowles, the father of singers Beyoncé and Solange, says he was conditioned to only date white women or light-skinned black women who “looked white.”
Colorism makes it so that loving dark-skinned black women is not seen as lucrative, beneficial or valuable when it comes to amassing cultural, social, economic or even political capital. This results in us getting denigrated, dogged out and devalued at every turn.
So you imagine how radical it is to have a dark-skinned woman portrayed as the main love interest at the center of the Afrofuturistic utopia known as Wakanda.
That’s some wild counterprogramming, even if director Ryan Coogler doesn’t mean for it to be. (Judging by his prior work and how clear it is that Coogler loves and respects black women, I doubt it was accidental). It means something — hell, everything — that T’Challa has seemingly gravitated toward a woman who is very much as dark as he is. And it shows that the dark-skinned representation in this movie isn’t seeking to be performative in any way. Which, again, is unheard of and highlights something else:
‘Black Panther’ centering dark-skinned women is important considering the go-to people cast as black women in mainstream (and superhero) media are light-skinned women.
Any dark-skinned woman working in Hollywood right now could probably tell you how damn near impossible it is to get a role that is not rooted in a stereotype that is historically used to demonize dark-skinned black women. Think: the Mammy, or the Sapphire, or the Jezebel.
This phenomenon affects the superhero genre, too. The greatest example of this is the fact that Marvel’s premier mutant weather goddess, Storm, has consistently been cast as a light-skinned black woman for the last 18 odd years. It’s interesting because canon consistently renders her and her parents as dark-skinned, but every live-action portrayal is quite the opposite ― first in the initial “X-Men” trilogy with Halle Berry and then again in “X-Men: Apocalypse” with Alexandra Shipp.
This is not to detract from the actresses, especially Berry, as she was the first black woman to win an Oscar for best actress. But it gets dicier if you consider that Berry also starred as the titular antihero in 2005′s “Catwoman.” This means that Berry has gotten to play, not one, but two black superheroines, one of whom she was miscast for due to that colorism factor.
Of course, director Bryan Singer, a white man, is technically to blame for the gross colorism on display in the X-Men franchise (which is unsurprising as colorism is a byproduct of white supremacy). But we still have so much more to unpack when it comes to colorism in our own community. Especially if you consider the following:
Black mainstream media has a penchant for enforcing and reinforcing colorism, too.
Colorism not only rests on white supremacy, but also depends on us to uphold it like it’s law. Colorism, purposefully or not, is reinforced by our own media or art. I am constantly reminded of this with old favorites like the TV show “Martin” or new favorites like “Empire.” But I am reminded of another childhood classic that really dropped the ball in terms of colorism: “The Proud Family.”
You can’t mention “The Proud Family” to any millennial or Gen Xer without us going wild with nostalgia. That said, the show has always been as problematic as it is iconic. On one hand, the show had an extremely positive impact on black kids searching for themselves on the Disney Channel. And it routinely tackled tough subjects (like the nuances of the civil rights movement, Islamophobia and interracial dating) and normalized black culture that was not taught to us in school (like Kwanzaa). On the other hand, the show had some very disgusting issues with colorism.
Prime examples of this include the classic trope of the bumbling, “ugly” dark-skinned husband, Oscar, who just so happens to be married to his nigh perfect and stunning light-skinned wife, Trudy. But the more problematic aspects of colorism in the show lie in the portrayal of Dijonay Jones (and Suga Momma as well). Dijonay fulfills the role of dark-skinned best friend to the light-skinned Penny Proud. She is louder and more uncouth than Penny. She is portrayed as the caretaker to her numerous and unruly siblings, as her parents are never around. And she is portrayed as romantically and sexually aggressive when it comes to her crush on Sticky.
It’s one thing to recognize colorism in white-led media, but another thing entirely when we perpetuate it but cannot seem to call it out in our own media. Is it that we don’t recognize or realize it when we’re doing it? Or is it that we simply don’t give a damn? The optimist in me wants to give us all the benefit of the doubt, but the overly tired, dark-skinned realist in me knows that it is most likely the latter. Or maybe even a combination of both.
Which is why “Black Panther” is such a head-turner. I doubt T’Challa (or Shuri) is going to give a 30-minute TED Talk on the dangers of colorism in the middle of the film, although I would pay top dollar to see that. But by having this many dark-skinned women centered in the film, “Black Panther” will not only attempt to represent a group of women that is historically disregarded in all forms of media, but it will also challenge any biases that people have against dark-skinned women.
And maybe that’s the point.
Clarkisha Kent is a blerd, a snark mage and a culture critic. She has written for The Root, The Establishment, BET, Into, and, based on her superhero persona, her nemeses include Lena Dunham, Frank Grillo, and Taylor Swift.