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Rutina Wesley in “Queen Sugar”

Why Is The Sensuality Of Dark-Skinned Actresses Devalued On Screen?

Big and small

I’m quite resistant to any of the facets of Shondaland and that’s not because I didn’t try hard enough to be wooed. Grey’s Anatomy was a hard one to warm up to when you consider that a Black woman created a show — starring a White lead actress and a mostly White supporting cast. And then after pleasing the White viewers enough to branch out — she creates a badass Black woman character who was just too out of reach for my taste — and the same goes for the other badass Black woman — who portrays the lawyer nobody wants to cross.

I didn’t have much hope when I surrendered to the latest offering from the media titan’s empire — For The People — and so it wasn’t surprising that it also proved to be a turnoff. The show about a group of young and highly ambition lawyers duking it out in the treacherous legal system of New York City isn’t unwatchable — but what stands out for me as a dark-skinned woman — is how we’re easily excluded from all the fun.

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A typical example of “diversity” on television via ABC’s “For The People”

The main cast are mostly White — which is to be expected for a vehicle on a major network like ABC — and then you have the actors of color who are either Hispanic or biracial. But the scene in the series premiere that riled me up — involves one of the lawyers — a handsome light-skinned guy who enjoys a nightcap with a gorgeous young woman.

It wasn’t shocking to note that she was lighter than her lover — and even though it’s standard for Black male actors to be paired with love interests that aren’t darker in complexion — in order to heighten the sensuality of the actress — I’ve gotten to the point where this reality is no longer acceptable.

It looks like I’m not the only one who won’t tolerate the systemic devaluing of Black women in realms of artistic expression — based on the courageous statement that was made by 16 Black actresses of all shades — that ranged from very light to darkest black. These women recently attended the famed Cannes Film Festival — and seized the privilege of exposure to draw much-needed attention to the shitty way Black women are treated by the French film industry.

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Victory in numbers

The mascot of the movement — actress Aissa Maiga who co-authored the book that the group of women are currently promoting — “Noire N’est Pas Mon Métier” (My Profession is Not Black) spoke to Variety about the frustration of being in the business for almost twenty years — without the recognition that is readily afforded her White counterparts.

Maiga also described her emotions as she realized that this was her first time of ever being on the red carpet with other Black actresses attending Cannes. She hopes this historic appearance will shed light on an issue that reflects the overt racism — encouraged by an industry that is seeped in a culture that considers non-Whites tragically inferior.

The book contains endless examples of how Black actresses of African descent are relentlessly demeaned by French directors — who are offensive in their requests and observations. One actress was told she wasn’t “African enough” while another was complimented for being “too intelligent to be Black” — which led to the conclusion that “she should’ve been White.”

The French film industry isn’t alone in the ongoing struggle to respectfully honor Black actresses in the same way White actresses are feted. The epidemic is widespread due to its highly contagious nature.

The forecast is just as dismal in England — as Black actresses with dark skin are regulated to background roles and never afforded the spotlight that Black actors easily garner. The love interests assigned to heavy hitters like Idris Elba, David Oyelowo and Chiwetel Ejiofor — to name a few — are almost always White — biracial or Indian.

In the popular British crime procedural — Luther — Elba plays the moody and tortured detective — who was married to a woman of Indian descent before his entanglement with a White woman who is seductively evil. The only Black woman on the show ends up being a co-worker — a safe bet for an actress who doesn’t exhibit any of the characteristics that would qualify her as a potential lover for the main character.

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Luther has eyes only for “White or bright”

Black actresses are generally disregarded when the casting process is in pursuit of a woman that is typically deemed globally viable.

But — dark-skinned Black men have no trouble finding work — and lately it’s obvious that when there’s a need to showcase diversity in romantic comedies or dramedies — the preferred default has to be a dark as shit actor with a White woman or a woman who is close enough to the White aesthetic.

There’s seems to an unspoken repulsion towards the sensuality of Black bodies that belong to women who aren’t sporting the features — that are supposed to make the idea of being Black — less intimidating.

And it’s not just in film and television — the music industry has been notoriously adamant about keeping the landscape “White and bright.”

When I penned an essay about how rapper Azealia Banks coherently and brilliantly explained the machine behind the radical rise of Cardi B — Banks read the essay after a fan shared it with her — and her response contained damning evidence of how her dark-skinned and untampered template — railroaded her trajectory to star status.

Her undeniable talents that include a prowess for songwriting was only admissible if she was willing to allow her lighter-skinned counterparts — the visibility she couldn’t enjoy. The deep hurt from that level of rejection while watching non-talents like Iggy Azalea — rise on the wings of Black producers — who play a vital role in fueling the hate culture towards Black women — has undoubtedly taken a toll — and helped to demonize Azealia Banks for daring to present the ugly truth — unfiltered.

The general consensus seems to support the assumption that Black women with dark skin — aren’t desirably sexy enough for passionate love scenes that evoke the fieriness of how a man wants a woman. We’re not hot enough to be featured on the covers or pages of magazines that cater to the palettes of customers — male or female. Women with dark skin and pure talent are more valued off stage — so that clones of Beyonce — Rihanna and Alicia Keys can give audiences what they want to see — which isn’t a Black body that looks unapologetically “dark.”

The only opportunities that women who look like me can revel in — is courtesy of Black women at the helm — who have the power to force executives at HBO to venture out of their comfort zone by supporting a show that depicts Black women — in situations — that are rarely seen onscreen.

After decades spent watching White women writhe with pleasure at the energetic thrusts of male co-stars — White — Black and beyond — I never imagined that I would watch a series on a premium cable network — that features Black women leads who play characters that fuck — more than occasionally.

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You just don’t see stuff like this on TV.

Other shows with dark-skinned women who aren’t playing the trusted friend of lead White characters or the nondescript prop in the background — are under the care of women of color — who are usually tasked with the responsibility of birthing compelling characters for actresses that are consistently robbed of their vulnerability.

It’s not just White Hollywood that has no interest in darker actresses — even the pillars of the community in Black Hollywood can’t hide their reluctance to stray out of the mandated shade for guaranteed bankability.

Spike Lee — one of the most revered filmmakers of his generation — maintains the longtime tradition of casting Black actresses who don’t sport a hue that’s too dark for comfort. And while Tyler Perry is a bit more flexible — his “angry Black woman” theme has wrecked more havoc on the overall psyche of Black womanhood — in ways that we may never be able to grasp.

It has to be said that aside from Black women — other women of color in Hollywood have historically been shunned for the purity of White actresses — so this isn’t a new phenomenon.

You can’t watch classics like A West Side Story — without the nauseating reminder that Natalie Wood — had to darken her skin in order to play the role of Maria — while Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno was regulated to the less prominent role of Anita.

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They made her dark enough to love Tony!

But — dark-skinned actresses with features that don’t earn them high-profile ad campaigns or the option of leading men that are salivating to be by their side — are still regarded as “less than” — by those who are in the habit of sourcing up and coming ingenues — for career-making roles in superhero or sci-fi films.

The epic success of the movie of the year — Black Panther — is noteworthy — but definitely not the norm.

Biracial actresses are still getting the parts that call for “diversity” — especially if it’s a highly-touted TV show or bloated film franchise. This particular road block Black actresses are burdened with is a challenging predicament that doesn’t seem to be improving — despite the falsehood of a climate that claims to be progressive.

I want my dark-skinned nieces to grow up in a world — where they’re accurately represented without reservations or the inherent belief that anyone who looks like them is simply not worthy of the spotlight — based on the brutal biases of those accused.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — but when it comes to black skin and the necessary accompaniments — everyone is conveniently blind.

That needs to change — effective immediately.

It’s time for executives to take off the blinders — and keep the doors of exclusivity wide open for those who’ve been systemically shut out — because if diversity is truly the path forward — then we need to go all the way to reflect that definition.

Black actresses need to work. Hire them!

Written by

Juggling Wordsmith. I have a lot to say!

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