Dark Girls: Toronto Review

Toronto Film Festival
Worthwhile topic of skin-tone prejudice among blacks gets an unsatisfying doc treatment.

A well-meaning but haphazard look at self-esteem issues among (mainly) African-American women with darker skin than their peers.


A well-meaning but haphazard look at self-esteem issues among (mainly) African-American women with darker skin than their peers, Dark Girls raises an interesting topic and gathers some good material, but isn't discriminating enough in putting them together. Unpromising for theatrical distribution in this form, it could serve as a useful conversation-starter in educational settings.

Directors Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry peg their opening "History" chapter to slavery in the U.S., creating problems for later segments that find "colorism" in other cultures (not only African, but Asian) where it presumably had other origins. Still, the background -- including details like the fact that blacks once had names for as many as 64 different variations of skin tone and hair texture -- is highly relevant to most of the people interviewed here.

Some of those interviewees discuss their own experience of skin-tone prejudice, while others examine it as a cultural phenomenon. Especially among the latter, the filmmakers' selection criteria for interview subjects are hard to discern: The best known, Viola Davis, offers poignant comments that are both personally revealing and universally relevant. But among the unfamiliar therapists and academics here, many offer commonplace observations that any student in an entry-level sociology class could muster.

The most compelling scenes are of women discussing their own childhoods, full of subtle (and not) indications that darker-skinned people are less attractive, competent, and lovable than fairer-skinned ones. (Duke and Berry could have made a whole film using more, and more in-depth, interviews like these.) But a long chunk of man-on-street material with black men is a very close second; some of the women here might be surprised how many of the men actually prefer darker women, but men on both ends of the spectrum have interesting things to say.

What's not analyzed at all is why the film treats this only as an issue for girls. Do boys not suffer the same prejudices? Or do they play out in ways so different they don't belong in this doc? Perhaps Dark Girls, which doesn't seem to have looked too far for interviewees or thought too long about its assertions, will inspire a more thorough filmmaker to expand on the theme.


Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Companies: Duke Media/Urban Winter Entertainment.
Directors-producers: Bill Duke, D. Channsin Berry.
Director of photography: Johnny Simmons.
Editor: Bradinn French.
No rating, 72 minutes.