Even in Black Hollywood, light-skinned female leads are par for the course. The presence of dark-skinned women at the center of last year’s astronomically successful output Black Panther and If Beale Street Could Talk acknowledged the urgent need for a more inclusive take on the range of Blackness. The casting of grown-ish star Yara Shahidi, a Black and Iranian actress, in the forthcoming film about a Jamaican girl in America facing deportation, The Sun Is Also A Star, is another reminder that light-skinned beauty is preferred, even if authenticity is at risk.
Based on the bestselling and award-winning YA novel by Nicola Yoon, the plot traces the modern-day love story of a teenage Jamaican immigrant spending her final hours in America falling for a Korean American stranger before her family’s deportation back to the island. In the book, Natasha Kingsley, played by Shahidi, is described as “glowing brown” and sporting an afro, which can be, for some, open to interpretation. However, the film adaptation definitively swaps the ‘fro and dark complexion for loose curls and a fairer skin tone, though the rest of the onscreen Kingsley family (played by Gbenga Akinnagbe, Miriam A. Hyman, and Jordan Williams) is dark-skinned with tightly coiled hair.
The casting of Shahidi’s co-star, white and Korean actor Charles Melton, is also facing cries of whitewashing, considering that he’s also described as a character with two Korean parents.
Understandably, producers of book-to-film features exercise artistic license and alter details rightfully. What’s upsetting is how often the movie industry opts for what is deemed as acceptable imagery of Black women and erases whole spaces meant for dark-skinned representation as do the light-skinned women who accept these roles written for their darker sisters. Buying into the complicity in fueling the narrative that light-toned and biracial women are what viewers are and should be more comfortable with.
Biracial Black actress Amandla Stenberg, who faced the wrath of fans of the book The Hate U Give when she was cast as the brown-skinned Star in the film adaptation, has spoken up about this. “Me and Yara and Zendaya are perceived in the same way because we are lighter skinned brown girls,” she told Vanity Fair. “We fill this interesting space of being accessible to Hollywood and accessible to white people in a way that darker skinned girls are not.” The acknowledgment can still be a bitter pill to swallow when the actresses still take roles written for their darker skinned sisters.
Shahidi has had an impressive career. From child star to Hollywood It girl and social activist, the Harvard student is brilliant, receiving a recommendation letter from our Forever First Lady Michelle Obama. But questions of colorism have surrounded her projects for years. For instance, her hit black-ish spin-off, grown-ish, took some hits when viewers noticed that its majority-people-of-color cast was blatantly missing dark-skinned people, especially dark-skinned women.
Regarding the privileges of colorism and hair texture, Shahidi told ESSENCE magazine in her April 2018 cover story:
“I’m brown-skinned. I personally don’t see myself as light-skinned,” Shahidi said. “I also understand I’m not dark-skinned… I get that within the Black community there are a couple of us who are chosen, not by any fault of our own, to represent everyone. But I’ve been the same character for five years…I am not out here in a ton of movies and a ton of TV shows.”
Though it does ignore that she is on the lighter side of brown and does not account for the privilege of having a very loose curl pattern, that response is still a bit better than Alexandra Shipp, another biracial actress whose latest miscasting is playing the dark-skinned superhero Storm.
“(I tweeted back) at people who criticized me for not having dark enough skin for my role in X-Men because we’re not going to have this conversation about a cartoon character,” Shipp infamously said in a 2018 interview with Glamour. “You’re not going to tell me that my skin color doesn’t match a Crayola from 1970.”
So much for solidarity.
There’s no shortage of talented dark-skinned young actresses in Hollywood: Ryan Destiny, Keke Palmer, Ashleigh Murray, Skai Jackson, Imani Hakim, Zuri Adele, Birgundi Baker, Lyric Ross, Letitia Wright–can you imagine seeing the Caribbean-born Brit in a romantic teen drama?!–and the list goes on. It’s beyond time for Hollywood to flip the script and actually hire dark-skinned actresses when the roles have already been written with them in mind.
With new industry offerings including Jordan Peele’s Us and Michael Coel’s Been So Long positioning dark-skinned women as love interests without fetishization, as women to be adored, as women other than the suffering “strong” types, there’s a feverish momentum behind redefining the acceptable version of a Black girl, especially a dark-toned one. Now’s the time for those with privilege and a platform to be vocal in passing on opportunities to women who are overlooked, to be an ally. Only then can we begin to recolor what’s acceptable imagery of Black womanhood and show that dark-skinned women are also stars.