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It’s well known among people of color that Hollywood prefers its coffee with lots of cream, not black. That casting bias has again been exposed with the recent backlash regarding In the Heights’ exclusion of dark-skinned Afro-Latino characters, who largely populate the real Washington Heights. Unfortunately, when it comes to casting characters who are Black — especially leads — Hollywood prefers to dilute the color to a less threatening coat.
Colorism is so destructive that it has long infested the Black community to the point where there has been discrimination against darker Blacks by lighter-skinned Blacks. And now there’s a movie written and directed by POC, yet it still reflects the popular adage of my youth: “If you’re white, you’re all right. If you’re brown, hang around. If you’re black, get back.”
Undeniably, we have made considerable leaps since that time — politically, socially and culturally. Much more diverse ethnicity is being seen on our screens, heard in our music and read in our books. Then how does something like this happen in Hollywood’s if-not-completely-woke-at-least-waking-up culture?
Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to me to be a very talented, innovative and respectful artist dedicated to cultural inclusion. In the Heights was created by him to give voice to Latin people (especially those with Dominican, Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage), their histories and their dreams. Laudable and necessary. A cause for jubilation. But somewhere along the line, despite hundreds of people involved in making the movie and a $55 million budget, no one pointed a finger at the cast and said, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Ironically, this oversight came on the heels of last summer’s 4,700 Black Lives Matter marches that included up to 20 million people — the film had been completed by then. Yes, Black lives matter in our daily lives, but they also have to matter in our art, in our culture and in the stories we tell, because that’s what informs each generation what values we are trying to celebrate and preserve. When we consistently cast lighter-skinned performers, we’re telling everyone that lighter skin is better, more valuable to our society.
The problem is across all media. We have a history of lightening or darkening Black faces depending on whether we are trying to promote them or villainize them. In 1994, after O.J. Simpson’s arrest for the murder of his ex-wife and her friend, Time and Newsweek ran the same O.J. mug shot on their covers — except the photo on Time had been considerably darkened to make him more the typical image of the Dangerous Black Man Hiding in White Suburbia’s Bushes. Just as sinister is the lightening of skin to sell more issues or products, as was done with Kerry Washington for InStyle, Lupita Nyong’o for Vanity Fair, Halle Berry for Harper’s Bazaar, Beyoncé for a L’Oréal ad and Gabourey Sidibe for Elle.
The message is clear: light skin good, dark skin bad. And that message translates into real world consequences: A Harvard study showed darker skin resulted in “lower socioeconomic status, more punitive relationships with the criminal justice system, diminished prestige and less likelihood of holding elective office.”
We shouldn’t be surprised. In a culture whose most popular stories warn of the Dark Side, whose villains always want to bring darkness to Earth — usually while wearing black leather — and which equates black with death, decay and shadowy nightmares, well, it’s inevitable that black is going to carry some unconscious negative weight. Add to that the fully conscious negative weight of ingrained racism that equates Black skin with crime, hate, laziness and lack of education, and it’s easy to see how all this filters down to Hollywood casting.
America certainly isn’t the only country battling colorism. India and China support a multibillion dollar bleach cream industry whose products are meant to lighten the skin. (Some creams contain poisonous chemicals that can cause kidney failure, meaning that millions would rather risk death than have dark skin.) Bollywood has long enabled mass colorism, too, often by featuring a lighter-skinned actress in the lead while surrounding her with dark-skinned backup dancers to emphasize her fair hue.
Hollywood perpetuates colorism and racism whenever it promotes light skin over dark skin based only on what it thinks consumers prefer. Perhaps this cultural prejudice had influence on director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), who, when asked in an interview about the lack of Black Latino actors in his latest film, responded, “That was something that we talked about and that I needed to be educated about.” Why would someone personally familiar with racial discrimination need to be educated about it? And why did that “education” not translate into more Black Latino actors in his movie?
We should all worry that the poor box office and lack of enthusiasm from viewers on HBO Max for In the Heights — despite approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes of 96 percent from critics and 95 percent from audiences — will provide a confirmation bias to Hollywood decision-makers that America isn’t interested in the stories of marginalized people. They can point at this and say, “Well, we tried.” Nor does naming successful dark-skinned entertainers prove we’ve come a long way. That ploy of tokenism has been used for decades to justify keeping out more people of color. Traveling one mile of a thousand-mile journey is not a cause to stop and celebrate.
We need to keep our eyes on where we want to be and recognize what we can do to achieve that. Toward that end, Hollywood needs to aggressively embrace all shades of skin, not just as peripheral or stock characters to fill quotas, but as main characters whose lives and voices matter.
But they already knew that.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer, is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter.
This story appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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