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The Women

Why The Women of “Black Panther” May Not Improve The Forecast for Dark-Skinned Actresses

Black Panther has evolved into the cultural phenom that we all predicated it would be and even though some of us are yet to partake in all its glory — the evidence splattered all over timelines — is hard to ignore.

Now we know beyond any doubt that films featuring an all-Black cast are the shit.

We thought we saw what diversity can do with other blockbusters like the Fast franchise — which to be honest isn’t as “diverse” as it touts itself to be when you consider the astounding fact that no Black woman with dark-skin matching Tyrese — has ever been cast either as one of the gang or even an extra.

But — now we have all-star, super hero flick that is still piling up a shitload of box office receipts both at home and abroad and the best part is undoubtedly the women who are making history in ways that summon mixed feelings of pride and shock.

Pride — because as a dark-skinned woman with wooly hair and a broad nose — I can’t wait to experience the joy and validation of witnessing how the big screen will fill up with images that represent my aesthetic — without filters or sporadic appearances.

Shock — at the fact that it has taken this long to prove how versatile, appealing, and viable dark-skinned women can be if only the opportunities were to present themselves in the form of studio executives — who have spent decades — evading the “risk factor” of casting actresses — who don’t produce the assurances of profitable investments that their White counterparts naturally evoke.

White actresses are permitted to start off in the ingenue phase before they ripen to leading lady status. From Julia Roberts to Emma Stone — we are all privy to the early days of their modestly-rewarding careers — before the starring role of a lifetime advances them into the gold-plated rolodex of the top producers in the game.

Black actresses aren’t nearly as lucky.

And the ones that sort of come close to the blessed trajectories — have to be ambiguous enough to give their leading men the confidence they need — to retain their manliness. Bi-racial or close to it is the only option — particularly for Black leading men like Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, etc.

These actors are eager to be paired with White actresses (it’s a career booster)— but if that’s not in the cards — they are normally cast opposite lovely ladies that fit the templates of Paula Patton, Eva Mendes, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Thandie Newton, Sanaa Lathan, etc. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with utilizing any of these actresses for romantic comedies or anything else that suits an adorably strong-willed beauty — who is captivating enough to make her leading man swoon.

But — it has become apparent over the years — that even films that are produced by Black creatives tend to follow this practice of purposely securing an actress who is many shades lighter than the leading actor — as if a darker skinned actress would throw off the balance of compatibility.

And Black actors seem to comply with this way of thinking — which adds to the consistent exclusion of actresses with darker skin — unless they are embodying roles that require anything other than being gorgeously vulnerable and alluring.

Actor Will Smith — who is headed towards iconic status — is rarely cast opposite a Black actress who fits the description of a “regular Black girl” — without the lightness, “almost Whiteness” and the profile that indicates the level of exoticness that give Black guys the validation they crave. Regina King (Enemy of the State) and Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day) are the only “Black actresses” that have shared the screen with Smith in a romantic capacity.

English heartthrob Idris Elba has a slightly more encouraging record than Smith — when it comes to leading ladies in film — but his character in the British crime drama — Luther — is a dashingly moody loner who only has an appetite for non-Black women.

The British audience seem to have a hard time internalizing the reality of two Black couples on television — and the only option is to pair Black British actors with British-Indian actresses or the preferred default — White actresses.

So, Detective John Luther has the best of both worlds — by being married to an Indian woman, while having a roving eye for the mysterious White woman in his midst. The dark-skinned Black woman he’s partnered with — is annoyingly invisible and only serves as a vessel for information.

Now that Black Panther is all the rage — the expectation is that Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) — who are both dark-skinned actresses with an awesome range of talent — will finally break the habit of a system that has worked against them for way too long.

Nyong’o — who picked up an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category for her memorable performance in 12 Years a Slave back in 2014 — has been keeping busy since then — but there’s no doubt that her visibility doesn’t match what her White counterparts would have amassed — if they shared her award-winning ranking.

Her luminous dark-skin and the features that don’t hide her Kenyan heritage — aren’t necessarily the ideal mix for a highly-sought-after actress with global appeal. And even with the immense success of her latest project — it’s almost hard to predict if Nyong’o will benefit from the exposure of her latest hit — and this fact is also rooted in the issue of colorism that plagues people of color with relentless fury.

As social media users — mainly Black women — share their contentment at watching Black women being celebrated in a way that is nothing short of historic — Nyong’o comes up quite often as her template is lauded by those who don’t need any convincing about her obvious beauty.

Apparently the users who aren’t quite convinced — are mostly Black men — who refuse to publicly acknowledge the uniquely refined features that Nyong’o carries with fluid grace. They prefer to downplay her looks or assign words and phrases like “ugly” or “too dark” — as a way to explain their revolting tendencies.

I hate sharing this shit — but here it goes:

Dark-skinned women have to contend with exclusion and outright abandonment — within their own community because colorism is still the thriving currency. This method of rejecting our own — in favor of what our slave masters nurtured is proof of the irrevocable damage that epically tragic period bequeathed us.

As a result — the ritual of regulating people with dark skin to the sphere of irrelevance is based on the perception that we aren’t worthy of ample visibility due to our unfortunate limitations.

The forecast for dark-skinned actresses may improve with the incredible success of a film that exalts them rather then downplaying their supreme assets. But, it will be a painfully slow process that most likely won’t be fulfilled in our lifetime. It’s hard to prepare for romantic comedies — featuring a whimsical actress with dark skin — falling into the arms of a suitor who isn’t comfortably darker than she is.

It’s easy as fuck to imagine it — but unless the barriers are knocked down to make room for a broader and healthier approach to casting — the generic formula — already in place — will continue to flourish.

In the meantime we can remain at the edge of our seats as we enjoy the festiveness of Black Panther and fully subscribe to what it could manifest once we renounce the shallowness — that prevents us from taking off the misleading blinders — that hold us hostage and dupe us into buying the lie — disguised within the gem of what we are and why it matters so damn much.

It begins at home.

It starts with us loving ourselves and rejecting the notion of hiding away our trauma in the arms of women who we are taught to uphold with delicate audacity — while the women who really deserve that tender loving care are verbally assaulted with degrading publicity — fueled by misplaced hatred.

Until a blockbuster film starring a dark-skinned woman who is allowed to cry and fret with normalcy as she is pursued by the men who can’t let her go — becomes a global hit — we will have to keep grasping the residue of what the women of the first ever Black movie to command worldwide respect — have been able to accomplish with flawless execution.

All eyes are on the ultimate prize — and as a Black woman with smooth dark skin — I’ll be more than ready when it arrives.

Written by

Juggling Wordsmith. I have a lot to say!

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