The Question: It’s Time to Talk About Colorism in Hollywood

Liana Harris, St. John's College High School

Liana Harris illustrates how one opportunity for activism turned into another. (Published: 2019)

I knew that I would ask the question before we even arrived. My family, close friends, and I were going to the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival to participate in a Q&A for the movie The Hate U Give. As a young black activist, I was excited to learn about how this movie had been developed. It is about a black 16 year old girl, Starr Carter, who witnesses a fatal event of police brutality against her close friend. After this experience, she is inspired to advocate for social justice. This story supports the Black Lives Matter movement and it aims to represent the perspective of young people like myself who want their voices to be heard.

Although I was excited, my question was still hanging over my head. It concerned the topic that people have been talking about ever since the trailer was released: the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter. In some ways, she is perfect for the role; she is young, black, a great actress, and an activist herself. However, I cannot ignore my suspicion that colorism influenced the decision to cast her. Although black people have a wide range of complex ions, light skinned and biracial women tend to dominate Hollywood due to Eurocentric beauty standards.

As we watched the program at the film festival, I became more hesitant to ask my question. I had no intention of offending the director, George Tillman Jr., but I suspected that he would not discuss colorism unless someone asked. His intentions were good; he wanted to raise awareness of racial injustice regarding police brutality, while also addressing issues such as code-switching, gentrification, and the criminal justice system. I then knew that it was absolutely necessary to ask the question, for colorism is a matter that should not be overlooked, just like these other issues.

I worded my question carefully: “I think that Amandla is a great fit for the role. However, I also think that black women are often misrepresented in media, so I must ask if you considered hiring an actress with two black parents.” Not to my surprise, the crowd responded with both applause and boos.

He casually laughed off my question, stating that he does not discriminate based on any prejudices. He explained that although there are thousands of excellent black actresses out there, they had to choose someone who could “get the movie made.” This inadequate justification proved that he missed my point; to me, it seemed, if choosing a light skinned, biracial actress was necessary for this movie to be produced, colorism was at work. By not acknowledging this standard, he was a part of the problem. However, I was more disappointed by what happened afterward. A middle aged black woman asked the next question, but criticized me first. She said that in today’s times, the black community cannot “divide itself with the nonsense” I was alluding to. At that, the crowd of adults applauded.

They failed to see the hypocrisy of the situation: The Hate U Give is about a black teenage girl who wants her voice to be heard. There I was, speaking out about an issue that needs to be addressed, and I was treated as if my opinion does not matter. Their responses reminded me of the All Lives Matter narrative, as they used language that sounded inclusive and humanitarian while belittling the issue at hand. I was disappointed, but not discouraged. Activism involves asking hard questions, and often not receiving good answers. Even though many in our generation recognizes this prejudice, I believe that many more people must still work to understand that ignoring this conversation will not make the problem disappear.

A few months later, I saw The Hate U Give and loved it. The message is valuable to our society, as it illustrates the sad reality of how black people are treated in America. However, this issue of colorism is greater than one role in one movie. It affects how the world sees black women and more importantly, how black women see themselves. As a community, we must recognize colorism as a real issue, and not just non sense that teenagers make up.