The Color and Shade of Black Women's Representation

I was ecstatic when I heard that Zendaya Coleman had been cast as Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot. This news was just another highlight in a month that has been consistently blessed by Black Girl Magic. As I joined in with the excitement on social media, I discovered that even more black women were getting roles in the elusive comic book sector of Hollywood. As I began to research the young actresses claiming these highly desired spots I noticed a similarity – they were overwhelmingly light skinned.

Alexandra Shipp was cast as Storm in this year’s  X-Men: Apocolpayse, Kiersey Clemmons was cast as Iris West in next year’s The Justice League and Zendaya Coleman was cast as Mary Jane Watson in next year’s Spider-Man Homecoming. They are all biracial. A similarity like this can hardly be called coincidental.

Alexandra Shipp, Zendaya Coleman and Kiersey Clemons.
Alexandra Shipp, Zendaya Coleman and Kiersey Clemons.

Hollywood has historically struggled with colorism, just as it has with racism. In Old Hollywood, the few roles available to black women often went to those with skin lighter than the proverbial “brown paper bag”. This was due to the belief that beauty was associated with having more white or European ancestry – which is a belief that has not been eradicated in modern society. While modern Hollywood has made progress in tackling its racist history by increasing representation of black people – they are moving much slower to adequately represent the diversity of blackness.

The majority of current young, Black Hollywood actresses disproportionately have lighter skin and straighter hair textures. Young, black women casted as leading ladies in big budget Hollywood movie franchises are almost always lighter skinned. The diversity in skin tones seen with older black actresses in dramas and comedies, is largely missing from the new crop of Millennial black actresses claiming roles in action blockbuster movies.

For every successful young black actress who looks like Tika Sumpter, there are three who look like Tessa Thompson. The range of blackness displayed on the movie screen does not represent the range of blackness seen in American society. Despite the rise in diversity on film, many black girls are not still not seeing actresses who look like them on the screen. Likewise, many black actresses with darker features are still being denied access to film roles.

This issue of colorism is not the fault of light skin actresses. They are not the ones perpetuating the belief that a black woman must have light skin and straight hair to be considered a leading lady. The blame falls on the Hollywood producers, who only want to cast black women with a Halle Berry aesthetic in the leading roles of big budget movies. They are the ones propagating the myth that darker-skinned black women cannot be a main character in $100 million movies. They choose to promote a very narrow selection of black women, yet want to get accolades for breaking down barriers and creating diversity on the screen.

 One could argue that Lupita N’yongo is an exception to this trend – but truthfully she is not. She had to garner widespread acclaim and an Oscar before she was offered her role as Nakia in the upcoming Black Panthers. That can not be said of the other black actresses who have landed roles similar to that. In addition, unlike most super hero movies, Black Panthers is being directed by a black man – Ryan Coogler. Coogler directed Creed and Fruitvale Station and has been known to showcase a range of black beauty in his films. The X-men character Storm, who is of Kenyan descent, has been played twice by black, biracial actresses in films with white production teams. It’s hard to say what the Black Panthers casting choice would have been without Coogler in its team.

Lupita N'yongo and Ryan Coogler.
Lupita N'yongo and Ryan Coogler.

All black women struggle to get roles and recognition in Hollywood. Any black woman gaining success in Hollywood – whether light skin, dark skin or somewhere in between – is a success for the black community. The casting of Zendaya and black actresses with lighter skin and mixed race ancestry shows amazing strides in increasing diversity in Hollywood – but Hollywood can not reach true inclusivity until women with darker skin receive adequate representation as well. True representation will occur when a black girl, of any shade or hair texture, can go to the cinema and see actresses that look just like her in any type of movie.

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