Opinion: Hollywood needs to stop being colorist in casting decisions

Colorism is a pervasive issue in the Hollywood film industry affecting BIPOC communities

"She is tall, with dark brown skin and short hair."

This excerpt describes Christina, a character from the novel "Divergent" who is played by Zoe Kravitz in the film adaptation.

Kravitz is of mixed African American and Jewish descent, with an olive-toned skin complexion. Christina's character profile in the Divergent series is depicted as having "dark brown skin," yet directors casted a relatively fair-skinned actor to play the role.

The following excerpt describes Starr, a character from the book "The Hate U Give," played by Amandla Stenberg in the film adaptation.

"As for me, it's as if God mixed my parents' skin tones in a paint bucket to get my medium-brown complexion."

Stenberg is a mixed actor of Black and Danish descent with a light-brown, almost tan complexion. Like Kravitz, Stenberg also does not fit the written racial description of their character, Starr.

Spot the pattern?

These are only a few examples of what Hollywood book-to-film adaptations do to portray a certain character as more appealing to viewers. And how do they do this? By casting someone with lighter skin to play the role.

"I personally believe that the use of lighter-skinned actors for characters that have been described as dark-skinned is a way (for) casting directors and filmmakers to claim diversity without actually being diverse," said student activist Nevaeh Kelley. "Black girls don't just look like Zendaya or Amandla Stenberg. Black girls are dark skinned, light skinned, brown skinned. Black girls have 3B and 3C and 4A and 4B and 4C hair."

Colorism in film, specifically castings for female leads in book-to-film adaptations, is an extensive issue in Hollywood. It has been overlooked by many people who may not see the real harm behind these microaggressions, which are part of an even greater problem. 

"Hollywood uses the same 'type' of Black women over and over again because they find light-skinned women more digestible," Kelley said. "They are closer to the beauty standard than those who aren't."

When people think of westernized beauty standards for women, they likely envision blonde hair, long legs, a thin waist, sharp cheekbones and large breasts.

People rarely stop to consider how individuals in the movie industry subconsciously, or perhaps actively, consider skin color to be a determining factor of the beauty standard as well; and it doesn’t just affect Black people with dark skin.

"Of course, the lack of representation impacts dark-skin Black people as it's literally diminishing their presence in people's minds and in their own community," said Zoe Bates, an ASU medical studies student and activist. "But also, it does negatively impact light-skin/mixed-Black Black people, as they are further placed on this beyond insane pedestal of perfected attractiveness and appearance, making us seem so uber-exotic creatures rather than humans."

This kind of preference for light-skinned actors in Hollywood has led to a greater divide within the Black community. A divide where not only are dark-skinned Black people disregarded, but also light-skinned and mixed Black people who are held to a higher standard of appeal within the community.

Additionally, in instances where dark-skinned actors are casted, they're often portrayed through racist stereotypes or casted in films exclusively about Black trauma and racism.

"It further pushes the fetishization of light-skin and mixed Black people, the degradation of dark-skin Black people, and ignites the colorist features and racist viewpoints among racism and white supremacy," Bates said. 

This is in no way meant to undermine the accomplishments of mixed and light-skinned Black actors; it's meant to critically address the movie industry and the casters who choose to give roles, specifically roles that could just as easily be played by a darker-skinned actor, to lighter-skinned actors.

"We come in all shades; only showing us one and presenting it as the standard is going to leave darker-skinned children with no one to identify with, and it’s going to make them feel inadequate," Kelley said. "I'm glad that Black actors are being cast, and I'm happy to see their success, but I'm tired of Hollywood cycling through the same three light-skinned Black women and acting like that is good enough."

According to UCLA's Hollywood Diversity Report from 2018, only 1.4 out of 10 leading actors in film were people of color. Just recently, the Golden Globes have been under scrutiny after announcing the 2021 nominations for best actors and actresses, where a total of three out of 10 nominees were Black. The Grammys faced the same criticism after consistently placing Black artists into the "Urban" category for awards.

This highlights the disproportionate manner in which Black people are represented in the arts as a whole. Film casting of light-skinned people over dark-skinned people is not only a form of colorism, but it is also a blatant practice of racism which needs to be addressed and completely disbanded.

"I'm light-skinned, and I've seen myself represented over and over again, sometimes even inserted in roles that weren't meant for people who look like me," Kelley said. "Other Black children deserve the same representation that I've gotten, they deserve to see people who look like them, too."


Reach the columnist at amvald11@asu.edu and follow @anxieteandbread on Twitter. 

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors. 

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