Denzel Washington Says Stop Blaming “Colorism” for Any Lack of Success in Hollywood and Work Harder Instead



With all that’s happening around us as the year winds down, including some recent shocking celebrity deaths (2016 is not letting go of its grip as the worst year ever), perhaps this item was overlooked and could have led to some serious discussions. I’m referring to Denzel Washington and some comments he made last week regarding “colorism” and the casting of black actresses.

In an interview with BET to hype “Fences”, when the issue of colorism was bought up by the interviewer, and Hollywood’s tendency to cast lighter skinned black actresses in lead or supporting roles over darker skinned actresses, Washington essentially dismissed the idea, seeming to not even realize what “colorism” is (when the interviewer mentions the word, Washington asks what it means, as if seeking an explanation), making the case that it colorism isn’t always an issue, but also a question of talent, determination, preparation and working hard to get what you want.

As he was quoted: “One of the best roles for a woman of any color in the last, in a good good while or at least any movie that I’ve been in, a dark-skinned woman has in this film [‘Fences]. So as long as you’re being led by outside forces or just being reactionary, then you won’t move forward. You have to continue to get better… You can say, ‘Oh I didn’t get the part because they gave it to the light-skinned girl, or you can work, and one day, it might take twenty years, and you can be Viola… The easiest thing to do is to blame someone else, the system. Yeah, well, there’s a possibility, maybe, that you’re not good enough, but it’s easy to say it’s someone else’s fault. But there’s a possibility that you’re not ready and you can still blame it on someone else instead of getting ready.”

No word from his “Fences” co-star Viola Davis in reaction to Washington’s remarks, but I’m love to hear what she thinks since she’s been very vocal over the years about Hollywood’s still ongoing problem with colorism. As she said last year in an interview for The Wrap: “… When you do see a woman of color onscreen, the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire… I hear these stories from friends of mine who are dark-skin actresses who are always being seen as crack addicts and prostitutes.”

And just this year Ms Davis again addressed the issue when she won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series for her role in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder”. She thanked Shonda Rhimes and the producers of the show for hiring someone who looks like her to play the lead and for creating a “sexualized, mysterious woman to be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned, African-American woman who looks like me.”

And even Washington himself also acknowledged that colorism was a disadvantage for dark skinned actresses in an interview he gave a few years ago talking about the advice he gave to his daughter when she expressed an interest about pursuing an acting career (while also giving a backhanded compliment to Davis): “You’re black, you’re a woman, and you’re dark-skinned at that. So you have to be a triple/quadruple threat…You gotta learn how to act. You gotta learn how to dance, sing, move onstage. That’s the only place, in my humble opinion, you really learn how to act… Look at Viola Davis. That’s who you want to be. Forget about the little pretty girls; if you’re relying on that, when you hit 40, you’re out the door. You better have some chops.”

Needless to say Washington’s comments have set Twitter ablaze with many criticizing what he said, as well as the probable bubble he might be living in. And just because Davis is doing well it does not mean that colorism isn’t a key issue in Hollywood (and let’s face it, within the black community as well) that can hinder an actress’ progress, no matter how hard she works.

Of course Washington made these remarks while promoting a film that he has a lot invested in, and wants to do well, so he’s not going to say anything remotely negative about the industry. And not taking anything anyway from what Davis said, she is an extraordinary actress, but there have been darker skinned actresses in Hollywood who, at any given time, have had significant careers, like Angela Bassett, Cicely Tylson or Beah Richards. Although certainly not many. And one has to also consider career longevity as well as role choices for each.

But one cannot deny that the lighter you are, the more desirable you’re seen (especially in lead roles) in the eyes of casting directors and filmmakers in Hollywood, and that doesn’t seem to be abating anytime soon. And though there are a lot of black people who want to deny it, the plain fact is that colorism is still very much alive and well among us, and is blunt evidence of our own severe brainwashing and still-nagging internal issues we have about our own self worth. If you don’t love yourself, then you can’t expect others to love you.

But getting back to Washington, what do you say about his remarks? Do you agree with him or is he just trying to put a positive face on a serious issue that still very much exists?


  1. What you gonna do? About that sh*t, what you gonna do? You gonna get well or you gonna end our friendship!!!???

    Those are the words of Jim Brown to his friend Richard Pryor who was slowly killing himself on that sh*t. Richard is gone now but Jim Brown’s cautionary words came to mind when I read the title of this post.

    Others did as well.

    Former “Good Time’s” star, Jimmie Walker, dropped a few words of wisdom. He opined on why major studios would rather avoid black films.

    According to him, the black community protests too frequently about the stereotypes projected on film. In short, he said he’s tired-tired-tired of blacks constant complaining, moaning and groaning.

    I know, that’s JJ “Dyn-o-mite!” Evan who made his money by being a clown. So why pay attention to the words of a fool, huh? Well, check out the following:

    “ultimately, you have to put in the work […] It’s very easy to cry racism when you’re not qualified to do the work or your work isn’t transcending to where you want it to be. Stop Crying Racism At Hollywood Says ANTOINE FUQUA, Put In the damn work”

    UT OH! An A-Lister has spoken! But wait, there’s another who says y’all need to wish it would rain. You know, he’s talking about that Temptation song which spoke of hiding your tear drops with rain drops. Well, here’s a chorus:

    With the white man went my future, my life is filled with gloom
    So day after day I stay locked up in my room
    I know to you, it might sound strange
    But I wish it would rain cause words could never explain,
    I just wish it would rain
    ‘Cause rain drops will hide my tear drops
    And no will ever know how the white man stole my show

    Yes sir, the writing is on the wall y’all. Colorism is over! Well…

    Morgan Freeman said:
    “I think we need to get over that shit. How many Chinese do you see? You don’t see them out marching and shit. Oh God please. I think … We need to get over it, that’s all.”

    WOW! That old fool who won fame by Driving Miss Daisy needs to STFU, huh.

    But damn, Et tu, Denzel!?

    Listen, only a fool, a suckass, an Uncle Tom or a white man would truly believe “colorism” is a thang of the past. And see, I believe Denzel believes in the idiom “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” .

    Now… to all the young readers, listen real good. The closer an enemy is to you, the more intimately you will come to know their capabilities, strengths, weaknesses, tendencies etc. You can use this knowledge to your advantage. A close enemy is also one you’re privy to the whereabouts of, so you’re much less likely to be caught off-guard.

    What you gonna do… about that shit? Black Cinema, you gonna get well or you gonna end our friendship?

    • But notice that all the people you mentioned were men. Goes back to the convos surrounding the Dark Girls documentary. I think we eventually came to the conclusion that women are much more affected by colorism than men and that although black men are also affected by it they tend to dismiss it as being non-existent – as it regards black men. If the guys you mentioned above deny racism, then certainly colorism is not a thing at all.

      Denzel is different in that he hasn’t denied racism or colorism outright but since he is not a woman nor dark he probably is in the camp that yes there may be colorism but it’s not that big a deal. Somehow I think if the question was about racism in Hollywood he would have been more on point as he has been in the past.

      • Excellent observation, JMac. And look, we’re talking about DENZEL, okay. To disagree with anything he says is in an open forum, is blasphemous, imo. That said, I think Mr. Charles Judson summed him up to a tee.

        So I’ll just give my take on Denzel and Viola in “Fences”.

        Well, what is there to say except they both gave outstanding performances. But like someone else said, I think “Fences” plays better on the stage.

        Now, will they each win an Oscar? Well, the scene in which Viola spills out her broken heart is Oscar material but can the voters relate to her or feel empathy for her character? I don’t know but she had my woman calling Denzel a low down, no good, rotten M*****F*****!. And when he brought that baby home…. OMG!

        That reminds me, I didn’t know the story was so sad. Damn, i wasn’t expecting that at all. I’m gonna have to watch “Sing” tonight to get that sadness off me.

    • On this issue, Denzel is full of isht — and then some. Not only has he contradicted his own stance du jour on this issue with the quote the article provides from the advice he gave to his daughter, but he also cites Viola Davis as an exemplar of an unbiguous-looking Black woman having some success in Hollyweird. Problem is, Davis is a wonderful example of how pervasive colorism is in casting Black folk in projects big and small, and there’s no denying that she should be much more decorated and respected in the industry than she is, save for the lack of quality roles she has been able to play over the course of her career.

      Denzel himself is an aberration, given his success in comparison with his peers and those who may have come before or have come after him; one could argue that there’s always one Black person who does well while the rest are shut out. Superior talent notwithstanding, Denzel is that one person, which could easily have him either insensitive or unaware (or both) of the disparity in casting Black actors who are clearly Black in appearance over their more ambiguous-looking peers. Despite his claim to the contrary, “hard work is [NOT] good enough” when it comes to success as an actor, if you’re “acting while Black”. Can’t afford to have misinformed folk like Washington providing sound bites for the media to use to discredit legitimate claims of Black people, under the guise of fairness and inclusivity, when their source for such nonsense is the one person seem seemingly immune to the vagaries and wishy-washiness of the casting scene.

    • I can never understand or make sense of hollywood idiots who act for a living talking about hard work…these people haven’t the slightest clue what hard work really is.

      • Exactly!!!!! I think this is one of the top ten delusions of the world. That anything to do with the entertainment industry qualifies as “hard work”

    • Someone should probe just the tiniest bit deeper into ol’ Denzel’s psyche. Ask him has he ever noticed how adverse Hollywood is to black men as romantic beings. How whenever a lovely black woman is playing opposite a handsome white man you can just about bet she will be cushioning his fall into bed before long. Maybe he has an answer not reflected in his asinine comments.

      Or perhaps he could reflect upon the strange fact that black men, including himself, are almost never allowed more than a platonic “friendship” with any white woman with whom he manages to be cast. Unless, of course, just that very relationship is the entire point of the show. A` la Spike Lee’s “Do the right thing”.

  2. Saw this on the Root. First, I think people need to listen to the entire BET excerpt rather than rely on some slightly out of context comments to respond to this topic. From his response, I don’t believe he was dismissing colorism. I think instead he was saying not to let it give you a dismissive attitude and convince you to stagnate your career: there is a possibility colorism played a part but don’t assume that it was the only reason you weren’t chosen. Keep improving your craft no matter what you think or what happens. From his previous comments mentioned in the post, it also seems like Denzel separates roles into throwaway/trendy ones (young pretty little nobody jobs where there is no real acting) and the ACKTOR roles. I guess if you want the first type, then yes colorism plays a larger part because looks are more important than ability. But if you want to be a real actor and remain one then talent is the only thing that you can rely on. In the video interview, he insists black actresses go on the stage and get theater experience to hone their acting skills which is something I’ve heard many actors (at least the good ones) say. From his differentiation, it sort of reminds me of Sam Greelee’s “if you wanna be a rich ho, move to Hollywood” comment. Instead here it’s do you want fluff roles and be a Hollywood star or be a real ACKTOR and get the occasional meaty roles that sometimes get Oscar recognition?

    Of course, the biggest problem with both Denzel’s remarks is that there aren’t many ACKTOR roles for black actresses who do want to be Hollywood actresses; thus, even if they are extensively stage-trained and “ready”, an overwhelming majority of the available roles are for the pretty little nobody parts or the stereotypical prostitute-crack whore ones. Unless black men or women are making the casting decisions and intentionally not choosing based on color, light skin actresses will always have an advantage for the first type and dark skin actresses will always be pegged for the second type. Overall I’ll say Denzel’s remarks are short-sighted and a little unrealistic for dark skin actresses who want to work in Hollywood (or tv although tv seems much better than Hollywood). However, they may be more relevant and accurate for those who just want a solid acting record w/o too much regard for fame and/or money.

  3. Thanks JMAC for your insightful comments. I remember an interview with Vanessa L Williams and she did not agree with Viola. She said she has not benefited from being light skinned and said generally specking black address general have a hard time in hollywood despite their skin tones and I agree with her. Maybe for fluffy roles it may play apart but you can still have a good career regardless.

    • I understand your point but Vanessa L. Williams is light-skinned but moderately talented at best. Same with Paula Patton. I think they were given opportunities based on their color to show what they can do and they didn’t have the Viola Davis chops.

      • I wonder how many roles are given to mixed race actresses versus Black actresses? I think the argument should be about roles written for Black women that are given to women of mixed parentage. Hallie Berry has taken shameful roles that portray her as a Black woman. She’s no more white than Black. She has taken roles that were turned down by Black actresses because they were too degrading. “Monster’s Ball” comes to mind. I’ve never viewed it but the description was enough. People with a white and Black parent are immediately labeled Black which is ridiculous. White people carry many mental disorders that are passed down to their mixed race children. When these mixed race individuals behave in a way that is shocking to the public, it damages the image of Black people. A good example is President Obama who was mostly raised by two old conservative white people. They instilled their values in him. Has anyone ever wondered why he had to be constantly petitioned to open investigations on the murder of Black people by police? Obama didn’t feel our pain or understand our values. The fastest federal investigation opened by his Justice Department, was over a white guy who was slapped by a Mississippi police officer at a football game. Most mixed race actors claim to be Black because it fast tracks them to fame. We love Black people with Caucasian features so we rush to the theater to see them. I recall Oprah screaming on her show that Hallie Berry was the most beautiful woman in the world. As long as we have a beautiful Black woman with dark brown skin (and power) proclaiming the beauty of a mixed race woman with Caucasian features (above all others), colorism will continue.

  4. JMAC hits some of the points I believe Denzel was making. I can’t help but wonder if Denzel is also implying that he doesn’t run into a lot of actresses that he believes are ready for the big roles. Is that a function of Denzel’s own sexism? Is that a valid criticism that comes from the reality of his experience? Is that due to a lack of access for talented actresses?

    What makes this murky is that the question is just too general and is trying to cover too much ground in such s short time frame. There’s really no way for Denzel to offer a more nuanced off-the-cuff answer to a question that’s about colorism both within and without the black community, and that’s asking him to compare black actors’ experiences with colorism with that of black actresses’. He’s Denzel for one. The rare $20 million man in Hollywood. He’s not a woman for another. He’s also a dark skinned actor who has not only mostly played opposite other darker skinned actors over the course of his career, many of them are considered some of the best actors period (Andre Braugher, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheedle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Joe Morton). Denzel may not realize that he’s just articulating how good an actor of color has to be to achieve the careers those guys have. He sees that as just the regular price for admission, not realizing that white actors do not have to put in that level of work to get to that level. Or, maybe that’s exactly what he’s saying and he’s being overly tactful about it.

    We also have to keep in mind that Denzel is an actor who also happens to be black. One that takes his craft and the business very seriously. He’s likely going to answer as an actor first, a black man second. If the question had been about a specific role or actor, maybe his answer would be very different.

    This reminds me of Sidney Poitier challenging reporters to see him in all his dimensionality.

    From Sidney Poitier Man, Actor, Icon:

    “Poitier further objected that the media had crowned him a spokesman for all black America. With controlled fury, he refused to be defined only by his skin color. “There are many aspects of my personality that you can explore very constructively,” he seethed. “But you sit here and ask me such one-dimensional questions about a very tiny area of our lives. You ask me questions that fall continually within the Negroness of my life.” He demanded recognition of his humanity: “I am artist, man, American, contemporary. I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due.”

  5. Okay here is a question, there is a script with funding,a budget of $55 Million, but the producer says there is a strong posdiblity that the lead part might have to be re-written for a top A-List actor. The candidates are Viola Davis, Jennifer Lawrence,Denzel Washington. Who gets the part.?? Or is it never about color just Box office ?

    • At $55 million, it would likely have to be an A-list actor. You’re talking about an $75 to $90 million spend when you add in marketing and distribution costs. That means $150 million minimum. Because of that, the box office would matter, which means the race of the actors would be an issue. Even if the producers won’t openly admit it or even cop to it. And that’s the problem. Kevin Hart is a success because the films he’s in don’t have to do $200 million and he’s not on his own. Would someone put him in a $55 million comedy that he has to carry on his back? Without the aide of Dewayne Johnson or Will Ferrell. Probably not. If it’s hard for Kevin, it’s going to infinitely harder for even someone like Viola Davis. So, the real question is, who do they have to cast alongside the actor of color to make the movie safe enough for a studio head to green light the project. Yeah, now that you’ve raised this question, Denzel’s response makes me a little angry. Because it doesn’t acknowledge the political economics that influences and shapes studio casting. Work your ass off, you still will have a studio too scared to cast you without other names.

      • Superb reply. Looks like a re-write with Jennifer Lawrence landing the role.

    • Also, it is not about the context, character, prominent or how big or small the role is, it is the opportunity to act and keep acting.
      I have no doubt many brown-skin actresses would jump for joy to get any non-prominent roles.

  6. To a degree Washington has a point….However, one cannot be too complacent when it comes to Race and color, as this can leave room for discrimination. Where behaviours/attitudes cannot be justified, then in my opinion, it must be discrimination. Maybe Washington is ‘in too deep’ to see or even feel the problems that exist with either light skin or dark skinned people. It maybe use useful for Washington to revisit the days of history/colonism to get an understanding of where this form of colourism comes from. He may be surprised to find that it exists amongst other cultures as well as within his own family, and that its existence is a negative one and how some darker skinned people are made to feel about the pigmentation of their skin (inbedded from childhood). This can either have a positive or negative and lasting impact on those individuals which creates a barrier that cannot be ignored. As a dark skin person, I wonder what Washington’s experiences have been like growing up? He my be one of a few actors who can say he has worked hard and didn’t experence any form of prejudism (that’s what it is), or prefereces from one to another – how fortunate is he? I see no harm in challenging unjust behaviour or learning to rise above it, but certainly not accepting or ignoring it.

    • “What makes this murky is that the question is just too general and is trying to cover too much ground in such s short time frame. There’s really no way for Denzel to offer a more nuanced off-the-cuff answer to a question that’s about colorism both within and without the black communit […] he’s being overly tactful about it.” ~ Charles Judson

      ” I think people need to listen to the entire BET excerpt rather than rely on some slightly out of context comments to respond to this topic. From his response, I don’t believe he was dismissing colorism” ~ JMac

    • Also in defense of Denzel…

      “Denzel believes in the idiom “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” you’re much less likely to be caught off-guard” ~ CareyCarey

  7. If I take his words one way, I’m to believe that the industry standard for filmmaking this year was to cast the most skilled and most professional people Hollywood has to offer. That’s just not true. The majority of movies appear to cast people based on looks and personality, because most projects don’t aim for Academy Award recognition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if actors are seeking experience and trying to hone their craft which Denzel recommends. Looking at his words a different way, I think what he may have really been saying is that you have to be at the top of your game to eliminate all doubt as to why you didn’t get a role where acting talent (moreover than looks and personality) was critical.

  8. Well, if people find fault with what Denzel Washington said, that I offer them a challenge:

  9. While I agree that there is a colorism issue and there has always been one in Hollywood. I honestly don’t see many lighter skinned Black actresses getting a lot of prominent roles either. Just saying.., shrug.

  10. Why should a “light-skin” actress feel sorry for a “dark-skin” actress when they are barely getting hired in Hollywood themselves?

    On every single black website there is always a colorism forum or thread where there is a lot of whining and anger aimed towards “light-skin” people in general. People are born how they are so how they come out should be blamed on genetics not the individual itself.

    White folks see so-called “light-skin” BLACK folks as n-word period because they are.

    I don’t understand why “Light-skin” actresses should talk about a non-existing “privilege” they somehow don’t benefit from in Hollywood only to make “dark-skin” actresses feel better about themselves and their egos. Work on your self-esteem

    Most of the times, “light-skin” actresses are crapped on and on most sites, folks say they don’t know how to act but are only hired for their complexion as if “dark-skin” actresses are the only ones who can act. Give me a break!

    Lupita won that Oscar in 2014 and hasn’t had a decent role since. She has an advantage that the other actresses “light” or “dark-skin” don’t posses and that is she speaks Spanish, yet Escalante and Larrain are busy churning out great movies after great movies. Why not bang on their doors?
    Lupita being a “dark-skin” actress has nothing to do with the fact that she won’t get a nomination for Queen of Katwe because it is a crappy movie!

  11. Lee Daniels, Ava DuVernay, Will Packer, Tyler Perry, and Chris Rock projects keep me happy and my mind off of Colorism in the movies. When I think about the hurt of Colorism, it is in the context of the love interests of Black men. I am actually surprised BET raised the issue in the Denzel Washington interview. I have always seen an array of beautiful Black Women of all shades in his movies. The issue is Hollywood does not make enough movies starring Black people period. Can we please just keep buying tickets for Black director projects so that we can have more projects from Black directors. Thank you in advance.

  12. Netflix kicking the crap out of Hollywood with their array of projects from Black directors from Africa and America!

  13. Typical ‘safe’ response,hate to say it, but my man has always been strapped with neo-conservative impulses just look how he tempered characterization as oppose to James Earl Jones ‘hard in the paint!’ Performance! in other words, Levity-Nuance vs. Kitchen Sink! take your pick..

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