How Netflix’s “Been So Long” Gives Dark-Skinned Women Permission To Be Whimsically Delightful
Michaela Coel is a superstar. By Hollywood’s standards, the thirty-one-year-old London-born Ghanaian actress would be experiencing the epic trajectory that envelops her White counterparts; but the industry-at-large is still woefully unappreciative of the immense talents of Black actresses, especially if the skin hue is too dark for comfort and seamless casting.
Veteran actress, Viola Davis found fame in 2011’s The Help — playing the an African-American maid, Aibileen Clark, a role that earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. But despite the accolades that were showered on the now highly sought-after actress, Davis recently admitted regret participating in a film that didn’t quite do justice to the characters that mattered.
“I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”
Given the fact that The Help was adapted from a novel written by a White woman, it’s no surprise that the film centered primarily around White characters, which is exactly how Hollywood likes it, and also explains the heightened acclaim that was bestowed.
Years later, and Davis is finally being offered the projects that allow her to embrace her sensuality and complete femininity without restrictions; both on small and big screens. As high-powered lawyer, Annalise Keating on How to Get Away with Murder, Davis embodies a deliciously complex woman, who readily indulges in her ambitious pursuits and specific pleasures.
Her latest win was scoring an enviable gig courtesy of British helmer, Steve McQueen, (12 Years a Slave). In the crime thriller Widows, Davis is given the rare opportunity to share an intimate scene with actor Liam Neeson, that depicts both their characters loving on each other — between the sheets.
For Davis, being involved in a love scene with a hunky White actor in a highly-visible film that’s furnished by a major studio, is exactly the kind of scenario that she would’ve relished earlier on in her career, even though she acknowledges how Black actresses that look like her still aren’t considered desirable enough to be cast as love interests opposite handsome leading men.
“You will not see that.” “I don’t care how much people say they’re committed to inclusivity — they’re not committed to that.”
Davis then went on to say that being a “dark-skinned woman with a big nose and wide lips and all of that and her natural hair kissing — romantically kissing a white man onscreen” was the achievement that needs to be granted to other Black actresses who share her features.
While I agree with the challenge to studio executives when it comes to mandated inclusivity, that needs to extend to an updated value system — serving as an equalizer for dark-skinned Black actresses, who deserve to be feted in the same way as their White and lighter-skinned counterparts — I’m not convinced that being romantically paired with a White actor is the necessary endorsement. Yet.
Cue in Michaela Coel, who first dazzled us with the 2015 Netflix hit sitcom, Chewing Gum, which wasn’t just her creation, but she also wrote both seasons of the whimsical show that was based on her play — Chewing Gum Dreams.
Coel drafted a delightfully vibrant character in Tracey Gordon, a London-based twenty-something retail rep, with a porously enchanting personality, that longs to be freed from the religious handcuffs, that have prevented her from exploring the joys of sex and the world beyond.
No other actress could’ve embodied that role quite like Coel, and it’s obvious that her theatrical background manifested the level of creativity and adherence to the soulful playfulness that made Tracey instinctively endearing.
There’s also the refreshingly progressive landscape that showcased a dark-skinned young Black woman with ethnic features, who wasn’t held back by the characteristics that would ordinarily limit her. She was gorgeously taking ownership of the narrative that gave her permission to expose the attributes that aren’t typically assigned to Black actresses who look Black.
That appetizing formula is the reason why Coel’s starring role in the enjoyable Netflix musical, Been So Long, is a rousing success. Based on the play written by Che Walker, and under the capable direction of Tinge Krishnan; Coel and the equally sublime and diverse cast, shine against the backdrop of the cultural fiesta of Camden, London.
It’s the perfect setting to witness the burgeoning love affair between Coel’s Simone, a single mother to a wheel-chair bound young daughter with an old soul, and Raymond, an impossibly handsome stranger with a complicated past.
They both meet on a night that seems to be set up for starry-eyed possibilities, as the usually reserved Simone, whose penchant for being a control freak, coupled with her bad luck streak with the men in her life, has prevented her willingness to let heart sing — until her chance encounter with the man that changes everything.
We’re also treated to the fun-loving and sexually liberated Yvonne, played by British-Nigerian actress Ronke Adekoluejo, who portrays Simone’s best friend, and faithful side-kick. Yvonne’s self-confidence when it comes to seducing her prey comically compliments Simone’s conservative approach, which makes their banter even more fun to watch.
All in all, Been So Long, isn’t without its flaws, as the unevenness tends to bring random distractions. But the fundamental threads of unity that bind each character is woven through the stellar musical numbers, and the talented consistency of the cast; thanks to the stage experience that most of them share.
But the greatest feat is secured by Michaela Coel, who exhibits her uncanny ability to display an array of emotions while also spectacularly lifting up her enviable voice with relatable poignancy.
As a dark-skinned Nigerian-American, who once dreamed of being a world-renowned actress, it was hard not be envious of Coel’s lottery win, and I don’t mind admitting that I fantasized my way through most of her scenes, pretending to be her in all that glory.
That’s due to the validation that Been So Long carries for Black women like me, who grew up at a time when the issue of diversity in entertainment was unheard of, and so we had to endure the damning messaging of painfully thin White women, and ambiguously-inclined ingenues being given top billing — while those who didn’t apply were regulated to out-of-focus camera shots.
Been So Long is the long-awaited vehicle that gives dark-skinned women permission to be whimsically delightful, which is a very big deal.
It’s kind of bummer to be stating that, at a time when Hollywood keeps touting the falsehood of the progressive push towards mandated inclusivity. But when we look around and observe the Black actresses that are getting hired in blockbusters and critically-acclaimed fare — the one common feature is the lightness of skin and curly hair texture.
We hardly see the likes of Michaela Coel, twirling with girlish abandon, as she excitedly harbors butterflies in her stomach and the blushing tendencies that erupt when a Black girl likes a boy who is actually fairer in complexion.
And that takes us back to Viola Davis and her declaration of how darker-skinned actresses need to be paired with White actors more often. We can’t have that “be a thing” until lighter-skinned actors are brave enough to woo their much darker love interest with loving urgency.
There seems to be a troubling system in place that assumes that the palette of viewers won’t survive the notion of a rom-com that stars a darker-skinned actress who becomes the object of affection of a guy who is considerably lighter. It’s almost like there is the threat of his masculinity being reduced to rubble, and that goes back to the misleading assumption that dark-skinned women are inherently more aggressive and less sensual — compared to lighter-skinned women.
That’s why we need more of what Coel and her supporting cast delivered with genuine gusto. It’s time to demolish the long-held stereotypes that have tragically infected the studio system — almost beyond repair. We have to finally embrace the full meaning of diversity and stop lazily nominating biracial actresses as the convenient illustration of the most over used word in the dictionary.
It begins with the unrelenting commitment of Black creatives, and then eventually the antidote will destroy the virus of damaging exclusivity, that shuts out dark-skinned actress with the same consistency that leaves the door wide open for dark-skinned actors who never have to search for work.
Michaela Coel is a superstar. And there’s no doubt that her level of dopeness and durability will force all the doors to burst open, and stay that way for others to follow.
And that’s a delightful image of the way it should always be.