Tag Archives: Colorism

Dark Girls

darkgirls

 

When I was a little girl, my mother had several pieces of African art in our house. One painting in particular showed a beaming, black baby with the words, “Black is beautiful,” painted next to her. Growing up, I saw this painting every day, and although I didn’t know it at the time, those words and the constant message of positivity were rescuing me before any calamity had come my way. At 9 years old, a boy at my school, a black boy, decided to play ‘The Dozens’ using me as his target. At some point in his little display, the words, “You’re so dark…,” came out of his mouth. I registered no reaction, mostly because I was truly confused. He tried again, this time with the words, “You’re so black,” but again, he got no reaction. What had happened was that I could not see his words as the insult he intended them to be because for me, the damage had already been done. That damage came in the form of the blows against the colorism and internalized racism that my mother had already struck because she knew I would face these forces as a dark skinned, black girl in this country.

 

black-is-beautiful-tee

After watching the film “Dark Girls,” I’m heartbroken at the thought that messages like the ones my mother gave me have not reached every black person in this country. Whiter skin color has always been seen as currency in this country and this currency still carries value, in that the lighter a person’s skin, the more ease that person is perceived to have to move and elevate him or herself in society.

But hearing the stories in “Dark Girls,” one is struck by the notion that this internalized racism goes much deeper than perceptions of economic mobility. Indeed, the attitudes of black people who are victims of this kind of post traumatic slave disorder seems to be that lighter skin, in many cases, simply makes a person better. Dark skinned women seem to possess, in a greater amount, the thing about black men and other black women that they hate about themselves, which is their very blackness itself. It is not difficult to believe that the energy trauma of slavery has imbued itself in the DNA of black folks, if we are to understand the very deep and long lasting attitudes about dark skin the film wants to portray.

 

vibe-vixen-dark-girls-documentary

Although she hadn’t reached the career heights she is now experiencing, Viola Davis’ presence in the film is important, as is her current success. As she says, she grew up not seeing any examples of women or girls who looked like her in the media, so her visibility itself could, for young, black women watching her career now, possibly be the thing that causes someone to put down the jar of Porcelana and pursue something else. It could also be a catalyst for young black men to shift their harmful, incorrect and delusional attitudes about the beauty of black women, simply because she is, now, being held up as a symbol of beauty and positive sexuality.

 

viola-davis-2jpg-6bce90667704c3b3

“Dark Girls” is the movie I wish were shown more on television instead of the current ‘mulatto follies’ on stations like BET. Strangely, as it stated several times in the movie, some white people seem to appreciate and find beauty in dark skin. As dark skin gets more positive, widespread media exposure, perhaps it will be these white people who will aid in helping some black people find and appreciate that same beauty. Stranger things, like racism itself, have happened.

Advertisements

Imitation of Life

MV5BMTYwMzI0MTk2Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODA5MTAyMQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_

 

“Ya just gotta learn to take it.” These words, spoken by Louise Beavers as Delilah in the 1934 filmed version of Imitation of Life, perfectly sum up the lot of the characters of Delilah and her daughter, tragic mulatto extraordinaire, Peola.

 

imitationoflife

The film, based on the 1933 story by Fannie Hurst, follows the turn of fortune in the lives of a once down-on-her-luck widow, played with pluck by Claudette Colbert and domestic pancake genie Delilah, played by Beavers. The women share more than a need for money, however, they also share the fact that they are single mothers, each trying to raise a daughter. If that were the whole story, it might make for a light diversion, but as it stands the film is much, much more and is one of the better melodramas of the period.

Louise Beavers, who should go down in history as the first come to life Negro spiritual, portrays Delilah with all the bowed head, soft voiced ‘Mammy-ism’ she can muster, and here, she is used to great effect. Her portrayal is offensive in many respects, but because the character is given an actual storyline that does more than simply push along the story of the white characters, she is notable for whatever dignity with which she manages to imbue the character.

 

feet-first-4

However it is then appearance of Fredi Washington forty minutes into the film that we are given the first real tension and conflict of the story. Rather than the tantrums of a misunderstood child, Washington shows us a Peola who has the full, lived experience of an extremely light skinned woman who longs to fit into one world and who rejects the possibility of fitting into another.

 

34Washington

 

With possibly one of the most perfect castings to ever capture an accurate portrayal of an actual African-American who is light skinned enough to realistically pass for white, Fredi Washington, enlivens the sad character of Peola with a sense of anger, confusion and disgust with her situation that she is easily the best part of the film. In hindsight, what makes the casting even more perfect is that Washington, in her real life, was such a fierce and staunch advocate for Civil Rights for black people, that her portrayal of a woman trapped in cage of self-hatred is a revelation. This is a good thing, since the dumb, almost childlike portrayal of Delilah by Beavers, whose only wish in life is for a grand funeral, is sometimes anger making in its earnestness.

While the Delilah/Peola storyline is a co-plot, it is one of the first instances in film where a black character’s storyline carries equal weight with that of the white characters. This should be a good thing, but since the storyline consists of maternal difficulties, a delusional child, a life of servitude and death, I’m not so sure that this is a positive net gain.

Queen- A Plantation’s Child

Queenposter

 

In Alex Haley’s 1992 mini-series, Queen, we are presented with a “child of the plantation, just like thousands of others.” For Queen, played by Halle Berry, is a mixed race little girl born of a slave and her master who, we are told, would be better off with her “own people.” But the question of who, exactly, those people are, seems to be an area for exploration in the mind of the titular character.

Queen starts off much like the later film Jefferson in Paris,  presenting a relationship that is as light and airy as cotton candy and with the slave, Easter, pursuing her master. It was said that Haley wanted to show a lightheartedness and tenderness to the relationship of Easter and her master, and he got what he wanted. While unnervingly unrealistic, slave and master romp about the plantation and eventually produce a love child named Queen.

Young Queen , who is keenly aware of the difference in the melanin in her skin, in relation to other slaves in her surroundings, grows and is made the handmaid to her half-sister, thus beginning her life as “little miss in between.”

While shown to be educated to a degree and literate, Berry as Queen insists on using a kind of slave-speak so offensive as to be laughable. It is made all the more jarring because no one in her life, that we are shown, speaks this way. This bit of acting choice follows Berry throughout the series and is, I suppose, her way of becoming ‘black’ or ‘slave-y’ enough to come across as said “child of the plantation.” It does not work, and is really the only sticking point, acting wise.

 

queenberrysad

But where Berry succeeds is in giving us a desperate Queen; a Queen so desperate for her white family’s acceptance, she initially refuses to leave the plantation for her own possible betterment. However, after the ravages of the Civil War have destroyed the plantation and left her little choice, she does make good her get away and finds herself a young lady in The Carolinas.

She is befriended by a fellow “high yella” woman, played by Lonnette McKee, who shows her the ways of the world and how to use her whiteness as an advantage. These “high yella” women, who easily pass for white (although they are obvious to each other) are made to use their looks to get by when they possess seemingly little else of value. As McKee’s character points out, “We’re lucky we can choose.” And choose she does. Queen passes with disastrous results, finding that her whiteness is both a blessing and a curse, and eventually finds herself on the road again looking for a home. This is a recurring theme, wayward Queen looking for a home, that is not so subtle in its showing.

After breaking down in a church declaring, “I’s negra! I’s NEGRA!”, Queen is finally shown some compassion from her own people (black people) and her life looks like it’s on the mend. It isn’t long, however, that she is forced from her home, yet again, due to some naive personal choices that leave her alone and with child. On the road again, she is faced with betrayal, the lynching of her baby’s father (which scars her in unspeakable ways) and an obsession with her child that borders on unhealthy.
Queen does eventually find that home she was looking for in the arms of the kindhearted and willing-to-overlook-a-lot-of-issues Alec, played with aplomb by Danny Glover. But even her marital and domestic happiness are marred by her disillusionment when, after the death of,her father, she makes her way ‘home’ to the plantation of her youth. She is cast out, once again, by her father’s hateful wife and seems to finally understand that while she filled space physically in the place, it was never her home.

Ultimately, the series is about self-identity and a yearning to belong. Queen’s personal struggle to find where she fits- a home, both within and outside of her- is relieved with her final revelation that, “home is where you are loved.”

 

queengloverberry

Pinky

Pinky movie poster
Set in a backwoods Mississippi town in the 1940’s, “Pinky” tells the story of a light skinned black woman who returns to her birthplace amid questions, secrecy and complicated racial politics.
Patricia Johnson, or Pinky, as she is known by those in her hometown, has retuned to her roots after completing her nursing education in the North. While she is received joyously by her dark skinned grandmother, played by the remarkable Ethel Waters, her arrival is also fraught with questions regarding the conflict and embarrassment of her passing while away at school. Pinky is immediately shamed and made to repent, in a way, for the sin of passing by enduring difficulties that would have been non-issues had she been a white woman.
a Elia Kazan Pinky Jeanne Crain DVD Review PDVD_005
Pinky, whose name can only be a reference to the ‘pinkness’ of her skin, is thrust into situations in her town where she is, at first, taken for a white woman, treated with decency, and when her true background is revealed, then treated with hostility and violence. She goes from protected to detained by the police when she is found to be black, and her body is violated by those same police and other white men who see her only as a thing to be disrespected and abused.
It is no wonder, then, that Pinky decided to pass for white as soon as she had escaped the clutches of the ultra racist South for the somewhat less obviously racist haven of the North. While the audience can easily understand Pinky’s motives for passing, what is more subversive to the plot, is that Pinky herself knows why she has done what she’s done. She hasn’t even de-boarded her train northward before she has passed, and while she is shamed for it later, she is also aware of the caste system that she is both victim and beneficiary of.
If there is a weakness in the film, it is in the casting of Jeanne Crain as Pinky. It was perhaps an unavoidable dilemma, as the two black actresses of the time who were considered ‘black, but not too black’, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, were, in this instance, too dark skinned to believe as passing for white. This left producer Daryl F. Zanuck with the choice of Crain, who, as a white woman, lacks both the frame of reference and internal turmoil to contend with the subject matter. This practice was not new, nor has it abated, but it is perhaps especially contentious in a film specifically, and not tangentially, about race.
PINKYCOURTx
Although not a weakness, but of note, is the character of Pinky herself. Whether by design or by acting and directing choices, Pinky, with her light skin and all, is a member of Strong Black Woman club. Through her struggle, and there must be a struggle,  to obtain justice for herself and uphold the pride with which she has been imbued, she is also made to uplift her entire race. In the end, Pinky, by her proud affirmation of her true identity, has become the “credit” to her race she was always meant to be.

Band of Angels

bandofangels

 

“Band of Angels”, the 1957 Raoul Walsh film starring Clark Gable and Yvonne de Carlo is  strange tale.  It owes no small debt to the novel Iola Leroy, by Frances Harper, as it shares more than a few plot points. But the film, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, is also a departure for a few reasons.

Amantha, like Iola, is a privileged young woman of light skin, so light as to pass for the skin of a white woman. Both Amantha and Iola are the “issue” of slave mothers, who were the result of seemingly loving and fully fashioned relationships with their white fathers. Both young women are educated away from home and both are informed of their slave status after the deaths of their respective, beloved, white fathers. And both women are suddenly removed from their lives as free, white people and turned over to lives of instant slavery. But here, most of the similarities end.

 

a band of angels BAND_OF_ANGELS-6

In the matter of the tragic mulatta, Amantha Starr, does not fit. In fact, Amantha’s tragedy seems to be that she is only momentarily removed from her whiteness and status. She is, however, soon enough restored, in a way, and resigns herself to her fate in her new home with her benefactor, Mr. Hamish Bond.

 

Band of Angels

In the confines of the idyllic New Orleans lodgings of Hamish Bond, Amantha, Rau-Ru and the household of seemingly content ‘slaves’ go about their lives not terribly fazed by the impending war, their lot in life or much else. For a film that opens with such a strong statement regarding slavery and the precarious nature of those individuals with vague light skinned privilege, it takes a turn into an almost fantasy of Beauty and The Beast proportions following the love story of Amantha and Hamish.

 

Band of Angels

The star crossed lovers are thwarted, in epic fashion, by the arrival of the Civil War, a scandalous secret and the vendetta of Hamish’s “high stepper,” Rau-Ru.

Rau-Ru, for his part, is fixed on righting the wrong committed by Hamish in exhibiting his “kindness.” It is the the sort of bleak, misshapen “kindness”, which comes to light later on, and makes for a complexity of character for Bond and Rau-Ru which is not afforded the other characters in the film.

In the end, however, it is the trope of the ‘Magical Negro’, in the form of the previously angry Rau-Ru, that takes hold and any thoughts of vendettas are put aside so that the white people can ride, literally, off into the sunset.

What starts off as a promising story exploring miscegenation and it’s repercussions, ends as a fairly typical love story uncomplicated by any of that messy race stuff. And perhaps that’s as it should be.

Feast of All Saints

 

 

feastofallsanits

“Placage promised happiness, but brought only…sorrow.” These words are spoken by a character in the 2001 Showtime miniseries “The Feast of All Saints”. The film, based on the 1979 book by Anne Rice of the same title, is set in New Orleans during the 1840’s, where the aformentioned practice of “placage”, or the (usually) extra-marrital relationships between ‘free’ women of color and wealthy white men, is the norm.

The practice of placage, which is really just a fancy, French word (and if we’re taught anything, it’s that everything is better if it’s fancy and French) for the romantic notion of the exploitation of women of color, is a practice of sexual, social and racial inequity so obvious, that it makes one wonder how could it produce anything but sorrow and pain. The ‘not quite master, not quite slave’ characteristics of the rituals of placage set up a power imbalance so fierce that often the only to way to maintain a life outside of the fields, was to be be born ‘free’ with light skin and good hair and hope to be acquired by the richest white man down the road.
feastofallsaints
However, this film wants the viewer to believe that the black women, or “octaroons” of the “Gens de Coleur Libre” held such power and sway that they not only secured financially beneficial arrangements for themselves, but for any children born of the relationship. This power, or bizarre kind of leverage, seems to come from the idea that their blackness or exotic sexuality was enough to keep the wealthy white men of the time spellbound sufficient to keep these arrangements intact for years as a second, unacknowledged, mixed family would emerge into high society with all its trappings.
The film focuses on one of the families created by one of these unions and the problems one would imagine to be rife in such a situation.
We are introduced to Cecile St. Marie and Monsieur Farronaire, played by the completely mismatched and chemistry-less Gloria Reuben and Peter Gallagher, and subsequently to their offspring, Marcel and Marie, played by Robert Ri’chard and Nicole Lyn. We are also introduced to another Farronaire offspring, Lisette; the product of the actual slave/master relationship  between Farronaire and his slave, Zazu, although the film does not make this clear at first. Into this motley crew are thrown the various characters that round out the New Orleans of the pre-Civil War era and provide the backdrop for the film.
feast2
The central theme to the comings and goings of the Gens de Colour Libre, seems to be the idea that they are simply better than other blacks, by virtue of their whiteness and how removed from slavery they are. In fact, the character of Marcel, played as an older man by James Earl Jones, relates that he, indeed, thought the Gens de Colour Libre were “different” and “better” than those he was surrounded by and it is only age and wisdom that forces him to see the shame in his prior thoughts.
feast
Also problematic for the Gens de Colour Libre in this set up, is the gender inequality that purports to educate the young men produced by placage and to simply turn out into prostitution any females born into it. When beautiful, very white looking Marie St. Marie (neither she nor her brother were given their father’s name) comes of age, she is pressured and almost forced by her own mother, Cecile, into the same life that has made her a “whore” in Marie’s mind and left her totally unable to care for herself. So naturally, because a story like this can’t NOT have an ultra tragic mulatta, the only outcome for Marie is to be raped by five white men in a revenge trap set by her slave sister who envies not only her white skin, but her place in society.
We are left with a story full of characters who find that if they somewhat retain their blackness and wear the mask of their freedom, freedom traded in the whiteness of their flesh and do not pass into white society (although a trip to France is totally acceptable), they might find happiness, but it’s highly unlikely.