Friday, August 6, 2021

Hard Talk for Hard Times

My friend Ol' Hobbes dropped a landmine of a question on Facebook recently regarding the casting in King Richard, the biopic about Richard Williams, the father and tennis Svengali of Venus and Serena. What began as a question about the choice for Will Smith to portray Williams became a deep conversation about colorism within the Black community.

Now a few weeks back, I explicitly tap danced around this topic when it was raised in the Latinx community with the casting of Lin-Manual Miranda's In The Heights...and I will give you a minute to think back to that whirlwind of a weekend when we suddenly had a new federal holiday and we were contemplating the cancellation of Rita Morena. And I mention her name because I already know that some of what I am going to say may sound a bit like what she said in defense of Miranda, so let me just tell you up front that I am wearing my big girl panties.

Colorism conversations are hard. They are difficult when you already know that you are coming from a position of privilege because of the perceived biases that are supposed to work in your favor. I am not using air quotes around any of this, because in this crazy effed up post-Trumpian world we live in, Black and Indigenous and Latinx and Asian-Pacific Islander and LGBTQIA and Muslim and white women not named Karen are all marginalized political identities. Yet, we all know that there are degrees, and so before anyone thinks I am All Lives Mattering this, I am not. Your blues are not like mine.

Colorism conversations are emotional because it is both an external form of oppression imposed on us as well as an internal form of oppression perpetuated by us. Just meditate on that for a moment. Non-Black people have stigmatized us with their biases in favor of certain supposed preferred features and in turn, Black people have found ways to do the same. And I can replace the word Black with any of the marginalized populations I listed and it would still be true--darker skin, darker hair, and certain voluptuous physical characteristics have been maligned in favor of fair skin, blonde hair, and daintier physiques.

On the thread, I offered my opinion that Will Smith, having a certain amount of clout in Hollywood, decided that in order to get this film made, he was going to produce and star in it. I excused the choice to cast a darker-skinned actor in the role of Williams because it made sense to me that Smith, being the producer, had the right to play that role and the larger issue was getting a broader variety of stories like this one to the big screen. A brother on the thread countered that as a dark-skinned actor who routinely got passed over for roles, he felt it was a conscious choice not to cast someone else and that even among Black actors with "clout" colorism is still an issue.

I read through more of the responses and there were a lot of issues raised that were compelling arguments in favor of and against this casting. Then I discussed some of the responses with the Hub, and we went through a list of casting decisions over the years where the skin color of the actor had not been the decisive factor. For example, we noted that the late Nelson Mandela had been portrayed by three different actors: Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, and Idris Elba. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been portrayed by a variety of actors, as have Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and Harriet Tubman. In most cases, the casting choice was determined by the status of the actor, and not their skin color or in some cases, their country of origin.

Therefore, my argument is and always will be that we need to expand the stories that get told so that there are more opportunities for more Black actors, period. And as soon as I typed those words and hit send, a mini Rita Moreno (from her days as Otto the director on The Electric Company) popped up on my shoulder as a pixie and shouted "Hey you Boob, how is that any different than what I said?" And I paused like a person in the throws of an ethical dilemma and figured I would take this opportunity to confront the very topic that I usually avoid like the third rail on the subway.

So here goes: it is and it isn't any different. It isn't different when you realize that the people who have been given seats at the proverbial table do have certain privileges that they may or may not notice. Lin-Manuel Miranda probably doesn't see himself as marginalizing Afro-Latinx actors and performers if he pats himself on the back for the creative casting of Hamilton. Will Smith doesn't see his choice to portray Richard Williams as taking a role from a darker skinned actor if he got the rest of the casting right. Both Smith and Miranda would say, "We are telling stories that otherwise would not be told, but we are also working actors, so..." and they are absolutely right.

And we are putting tremendous pressure on the few representatives at the table to make art that tells a variety of untold stories. We expect Black American actors to get preference for roles that have gone to Black Brits without recognizing that our cousins probably don't get the same opportunities across the pond. We expect a Broadway composer whose family comes from an island territory to tell all of the stories of the Caribbean (but didn't place any such demands on Disney to do better in its movie franchise set in the same area). We keep looking for our version of the American story--the one where not all of us were born poor or middle class or rich or in a two-parent family or raised by a grandparent or sent to boarding school or with a strong father or with a loving family or one where I see myself and can feel proud.

Colorism is more than just what I see on screen. 

When Beyonce released the song Brown Skinned Girl, there was a lot of Twitter chatter and I remember thinking, huh? Some girl went so far as to create a hashtag and a video in praise of light-skinned girls and whew, Lawd! That response was controversial enough to warrant think pieces like this and perhaps I should have written my own response two years ago, but I had already written two pieces (about dolls and The Rock) the previous year and thought those had made my positions clear. 

Here is where I throw caution to the wind: I am Black too and so is my daughter. What frustrates me about colorism conversations is that these choices are presented as binary without any nuance or consideration for the fact that not all of us are ever represented when it comes to Blackness. Just as all representations of whiteness are not all captured by a blond with blue eyes, not all Latinx people are Mexican, not all Asians perform martial arts, and not all gay men are named Mark, Rick, or Steve

And here is where it gets super personal: colorism is the baggage I carried for years, of not being Black enough. In a family full of brown-skinned people, I was born with fair-skin. I am lighter than my parents thanks to the genes of my paternal Grandfather. He was very fair-skinned, so when I was growing up, I was teased because people assumed he was white. He was a familiar presence at my elementary school, where he came everyday to pick me and my brother up in his old blue station wagon. Once he came to a school program for me, and because he was indoors and wasn't wearing his trademark trucker hat, a teacher asked, "Who is that old bald white man in the audience?" And when I responded that was my Grandfather, she apologetically said, "Oh, I didn't know he was white."

The thing is, he wasn't white. I asked him point blank, and he told me that he was colored so I went back to school and proudly told everyone. Then they laughed at me, "We aren't colored, we're Black." Never mind that my grandfather had been drafted, but not allowed to fight in World War II because of his race. Never mind that he spent his time in the Army as a cook, even though he was trained as a marksman. Never mind that his father had been a Buffalo Soldier. It was the 80s and his outward appearance made me look guilty by association.

I could list the various ways over the years that my Blackness has been challenged, and the explanation would be that kids are cruel and say mean things. So do adults. And for the most part, I am fine until these colorism conversations occur and the implication is that the best representation of Blackness in popular culture is darker skin. I understand that it is far more nuanced than that because I am well aware that there is a need to counter the harmful narratives about Blackness. This is why we celebrate darker skin and physical features that historically were ridiculed. So on this we can touch and agree that we can always do a better job.

Hollywood casting decisions can be made with more sensitivity and awareness. To cite one of the most egregious examples that involves Will Smith himself, there is the saga of recasting Janet Hubert with Daphne Maxwell-Reid as Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There was the recasting of the oldest daughter from My Wife and Kids; the disappearance of daughter Judy in Family Matters yet they found reasons to keep Richie; Sondra and Denise Huxtable; Coming to America; and I'm sure we could find plenty of other examples. At the same time, it is fair to point out that singer Brandy Norwood had her own sitcom, Viola Davis helmed her own show, and Prince Naveen didn't flinch when Tiana became human again.  

We've come a long way since School Daze. In fact, I have always argued that the tensions depicted in that film were exaggerated and that the real beef centered around the dynamics of social class and political activism. Because nobody at all:

Yet, it hits a nerve for a lot of people who feel that there are unearned privileges that come with fairer skin. It would be dishonest to assert otherwise. This very issue was the subject of a documentary that was produced a decade ago, Dark Girls (2011), which was painful but necessary to watch. But it is wrong to assume that fairer skinned Blacks don't encounter the obstacles of racism, or that generally, we don't advocate on behalf of our darker hued siblings. We are all still marching for liberation. Of course, I can only speak for myself. In the words of Issa Rae, I am always rooting for everybody Black.

Colorism conversations are polarizing, yet that doesn't mean we should avoid them. We should engage with sensitivity. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda needed to be made aware that his efforts to make space for the Latinx community sometimes fall short, because when I watched the video he did for Puerto Rico hurricane relief again, I did notice that there were no Afro-Latinx artists included. Gloria Estefan is Cuban, bro. As my daughter and I are watching various Olympic events together, I need her to see Jasmine Camacho-Quinn to know that yes, her mother is from the same island where her abuela was born. And she was Black too.

And since we are waiting for King Richard to premier, let's not sabotage that film the way y'all did In the Heights and then turn around to complain that there are too many slave movies. If you're going to accuse Will Smith of colorism for casting himself as the star of his own movie, then bring that same energy for Tyler Perry the next time he puts on that Madea wig and dress. Let's be vocal about the fact that certain white actresses always find work and can sue for more money, while most actresses of color are lucky just to be cast. Furthermore, let's not dismiss the fact that there are other Black folks in Hollywood who are casting darker skinned actors and producing excellent work such as Moonlight (2016), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), The Photograph (2020), and A Night In Miami (2020). Are we just going to skip over those other films to bash one? 

Colorism exists. It isn't just a Black thing, but people of color do need to reclaim our stories and interpret them so that we can counteract the versions that have been sold about us. If Will Smith didn't tell Richard Williams' story, this could have been another Green Book (2018), centered on the redemption of the white people who witnessed these lives, but never lived an hour in their truth. The same people who taught us to be ashamed of our skin, our hair, and our curves? Does anyone really think that Will Smith would not do this man's story justice? That Smith, also a Black father with high ambitions and big dreams for his children, would not be able to articulate the type of drive and audacity it would take to defy expectations that Williams' two girls from the hood could become world-class champions?

And what is the deal with hating on Will Smith anyway? While y'all are out here talking about his marriage, his children, and some of his unforgettable film flops, he keeps on grinding. Not just in front of the camera, but also as a producer of movies where he did not insert himself such as The Secret Lives of Bees (2008) and Annie (2014). And yeah, Amanda Seales does have a point, but in the tradition of great origin stories, Daddy Williams is the main character. After two weeks of watching the Olympics and the vignettes shared about the various athletes, all of their backstories prominently feature their dedicated parents.

It is a universal theme of unselfish sacrifice, but one that hits differently when the subject is a Black father (Earl Woods and LeVar Ball come to mind). And the common thread that links the three of them in particular is their over-confidence and eagerness to take credit for their children's success. These aren't inspirational stories in the traditional vein, so we can't just let anybody tell them. In this context, colorism becomes a distraction of superficial nuance. It isn't Richard Williams' darker skin that makes his story so incredible. This man never played tennis as a professional. He wrote a playbook for how his daughters, barely in Kindergarten, would become tennis phenoms. He raised his family in Compton and trained those girls on the public tennis courts. His personal life reads like the kind of family drama that gets discussed when grown folks would send us to the store on impossible errands. 

Have you ever really listened to Will Smith offer his philosophy on life? While y'all are caught up debating whether he is the best actor for this role based on the hue of his skin, did anybody consider that Richard Williams doesn't give a damn that they don't physically resemble each other? That man is peacock proud and feeling personally vindicated right now. Shiiid, I mean, if I had the choice of who would play me on screen, I would pick Will Smith too...

Will Smith is Richard Williams. Let's give him a chance to do this right instead of giving us another tired Bad Boys sequel. And he's Black too.

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