An Old Debate, Revisited: Hollywood Colorism

My sister and I fell in love with the show “Jem and the Holograms” about a two years ago. The show had everything- awesome 80’s fashion, girl power mantras, and a diverse set of characters. We were impressed by the clear attempt at inclusiveness and by how realistic the black character Shana was.

You can imagine how excited we were to hear that they were making a live action movie of the cartoon and building the cast via YouTube submissions, no less. My sister and I decided against submitting an entry because let’s face it, we aren’t that talented, but looked forward to seeing who would get cast as Shana, the cool black drummer with an awesome purple fro. Though definitely not the main character, Shana did not serve solely as the token black girl of the group. As the series progressed, her character increasingly gained depth and the writers didn’t retreat from addressing her blackness.

Why then does it seem that in 2015, we are taking ten steps backwards?

Upon finding out the casting results, my sister and my dreams were shattered. She sent me this rant:

I am so tired of Hollywood white-washing things! It was wrong when they cast Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia, wrong when they cast Christian Bale as Moses. WRONG that they are casting Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi. Wrong wrong wrong. You mean to tell me that you cannot find a person of color to portray a role accurately?

I am so annoyed that they cast Aurora Perrineau as Shana for the Jem and the Holograms movie. (Shana provides the synth drums, bass guitarist, and backup vocals for the group) Jem and the Holograms were an amazing 80s rock band with members from all races. How is that we were so progressive back then and not now?

Shana is a DARK-SKINNED black woman and everyone should be okay with that. Great fashion style, a PURPLE AFRO. Can’t we have something America!

In the cartoon the character of Shana was dark-skinned, a girl whom many black girls looked up to. But in this version, the director Jon M. Chu, decided to stay true to every character’s aesthetic but Shana’s. Instead, he cast Aurora Perrineau, a light-skinned actress of a biracial background.

Now here is where many people debate. “But technically she is black,” they say. Sure, Aurora Perrineau is black especially in the eyes of American society, but that is not the issue here. The real issue is the consistent lightening of characters in Hollywood and the erasure of dark-skinned women in the spotlight.

In the PR photos, Chu and his team do not even attempt to make Aurora look like Shana, juxtaposing a picture of the actress, with straight hair and pale skin with one of Shana and her purple afro. After seeing this photo, thousands of questions popped in my head. Was this actress really more qualified than the hundreds of women who had tried out via YouTube? Was there truly no dark-skinned actress who could have excelled at the role? I desperately wanted to give the directors the benefit of the doubt.

But how could I when this type of thing is all too prevalent in Hollywood? Black characters are constantly lightened once they hit the mainstream, or erased altogether. The Hollywood rationale is one that claims that viewers would prefer to see a white (or light) face in the lead, leaving the subordinate or villainous roles for the people of color.This situation is not limited to dark-skinned women, but extends to all people of color and has been a pattern for decades.

This student writes a letter to the director, expressing in more detail why this is a real issue with no end in sight.

For more detailed information on the history of Hollywood whitewashing, check out these sites:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/10/hollywood-whitewashing_n_5515919.html

http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/04/25-minority-characters-that-hollywood-whitewashed/a-mighty-heart

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