Tag Archives: Women

Dark Girls

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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“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.

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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.
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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.
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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

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“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.

 

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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.

Jefferson In Paris

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Released in 1995 during a particularly lush output from Merchant Ivory Productions, “Jefferson In Paris” is a study in ‘how to fit as many films as possible into one’. Indeed, the film seems to be four films in one, with each  relating only slightly to the others.
The film opens in a cabin in rural Ohio, with James Earl Jones narrating a personal history to a journalist. On the surface, this wouldn’t be an event, but as it stands, the personal history being relayed is that of Thomas Jefferson and his slave descendants, of which Jones’ character is one. The scene is brief, but seemingly sets the stage for what should be the story of how Jones and his relatives came to be. Instead, the viewer is thrust head long into a meandering historical drama about Thomas Jefferson and his time in Paris, which brings us to our ‘second film’.
Director James Ivory takes us on a well appointed, if visually staid, tour through Jefferson’s arrival in Paris, and his subsequent homesteading in a palatial manse inside the city. We meet Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Patsy, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and follow them as they insert themselves into French society at every level.
Though the film is titled, “Jefferson in Paris”, one would hope to find that there was more to the story than dinner parties and impromptu violin and harpsichord concerts, but our ‘second film’ takes the rather unexciting view that this aspect of Jefferson’s time in France is important to the viewer, even though not many of the motives for any of the characters’ actions are ever fully explained, or even hinted at. There is much non-captioned French dialogue, gesturing and the like, but the story is not ever really advanced by these scenes. Characters that are thinly drawn, or not drawn at all, compete for our attention with the subdued lighting and well made costumes and almost lull us into a Merchant-Ivory slumber.
The third bit of storytelling involves the oncoming French Revolution. The scenes, and that is what they are, a collection of scenes half-heartedly woven into the larger story for effect and not so subtle overtones on equality and emancipation , are such a jumbled mess, they hardly warrant mentioning, but they are distractions that serve to break up the action taking place elsewhere in the movie.
The real meat of the film is the ‘fourth film’, involving the arrival of slave Sally Heming and the youngest Jefferson daughter from Virginia.
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In an odd bit of film making, it’s the appearance of a slave character, one who should at least kind of embody the misery of her condition, that enlivens the entire production, even though she’s neither seen nor mentioned until an hour into the action. However here, Sally Heming, portrayed by the luminous Thandie Newton, seems only a slave ‘on paper’, as she flits and struts through the film with all the Southern charm of a belle awaiting her cotillion. The relationship between master and slave is one ease and harmony and when, in the final moments of the film, she is presented with the opportunity to become a free woman, she has a crisis like that of a lover who can’t fathom the thought of a break up. While the viewer may understand the difficulty of her position and the youth of the character, the film nevertheless portrays Sally as little more than a confused mistress, rather than an uneducated and exploited child/slave.
That the film insinuates it was Ms. Heming who instigated the sexual aspect of her unconscionable and utterly lopsided deal with Mr. Jefferson, is a slap in the face to almost EVERYTHING that has been reported about slavery in America. But, because the film is titled, “Jefferson in Paris” and not “Sally Heming in Paris”, we can only shake our heads and watch in disgust as the title cards roll, explaining what became of poor, little Sally and the future president.
The telling of the Jefferson/Heming relationship warrants its own film, and sadly, this is not it.