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Black women in film: light versus dark


A recent article in the August issue of Essence magazine got me to thinking about how little Hollywood has changed when it comes to casting Black women in film and television productions, specifically in regards to the darker-skinned Black woman.

Actress Nia Long and her two sons grace the cover of the magazine, and it is her comment in the cover story that clicked that certain something in my mind. She told writer Dream Hampton that, “I was the first Brown girl from my generation who got cast in lead roles.”

The article went on to say that Long opened the door for more  “Brown” girls from her generation, specifically sighting Gabrielle Union, Sanaa Lathan and Kerry Washington.

Indeed Long’s starring roles in such early films as 1991’s “Boyz in the Hood,” 1993’s “Made in America,” 1995’s “Friday,” and 1997’s “Love Jones” established her as a popular actress with filmmakers as well as moviegoers. Although her mainstream films aren’t as numerable, she has nevertheless made an impact in that arena also.

Long, as a brown-skinned woman had the distinction of being the object of affection in her starring roles. In the article, she said she ran into music entrepreneur Jay-Z and he asked her, “How does it feel to be every boy from the hood’s fantasy girlfriend for the last 20 years?”
Long may have done more for brown-skinned women than she ever imagined.

The brown-skinned woman is rarely cast as the love interest in Hollywood films. She’s the mother, best friend, co-worker, servant, boss, prostitute, lawyer . . . you get the picture.

Ironically, that standard was set in the very early days of Hollywood and films that were made outside the Hollywood system. Black cast films, or race films, were written, produced and directed by Blacks who set their own standard, often mimicking that of Hollywood, and shown in Black-owned theaters throughout the country.

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) is known as the Dean of Black Filmmakers, the first African American to produce a feature-length film, “The Homesteader,” in 1919. His films, from silent to talkies spanned from 1919 to 1948.

Micheaux was determined to show Blacks in their best light. In his motion pictures, he moved away from the Negro stereotypes being portrayed in film at the time,  meaning all of his leading actresses were light-skinned as well as most of his leading male actors. This was not an uncommon practice with other Black filmmakers.

“Hearts of Dixie” and “Hallelujah” were both released in 1929. Actress and California girl Mildred Washington starred in “Hearts of Dixie,” but the film basically told the story of a happy fantasy world on the plantation.  The grittier of the two movies was King Vidor’s “Hallelujah,” starring 16-year-old Nina Mae McKinney.

Billed as the screen’s “first Black love goddess,” McKinney’s character sang and danced her way into the heart of the lead male character’s life (Daniel L. Haynes) driving him to dump his fiancée, a fellow field hand, and dark-skinned sister Missy Rose, played by renowned Blues singer, Victoria Spivey, and the dye was cast.

Author Gary Null wrote in his 1975 edition of “Black Hollywood: The Negro in Motion Pictures”: “Dark-skinned women were seen as sexless, they were usually fat, good-natured servant figures.”  He continued, “Only light-skinned Black women who represented a basically White style of beauty were shown as sexually desirable.”

From Fredi Washington, and Lena Horne to Dorothy Dandridge, the stage was set and this standard persisted for years. And then an interesting thing called “Black Power came into play, and Black was suddenly beautiful . . . well, sort of.

Gail can be reached at