I’m seriously hoping after this, I won’t have to write about awards shows and the Negroes who LOVE them for the rest of the year (unless, of course, Miley Cyrus shows up to this year’s VMAs in blackface), but as this topic deserves consideration, I’ll grin and bear it.
I think it should surprise no one that in light of Lupita Nyong’o’s Best Supporting Actress win, casual observers, journalists and bloggers, and social commentators alike found it an opportune moment to discuss the actress’ skin tone, making note of the fact in all likelihood, an African American director would not have cast an actress of her hue in such a prominent role in his movie.
In a piece written for The Root, writer Kelli Goff says an African American director wouldn’t have cast an actress as dark as Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave” because of internalized perceptions and understandings of the kind of Black Hollywood considers beautiful.
“Slave’s” director, Steve McQueen, is an Afro-Brit by way of Trinidad and Grenada.
Goff claims the reason for the slight is also financially motivated: Fearing studios won’t green-light their projects, African American directors go the “safe” route, choosing either light-skinned actresses, or medium-skinned actresses with Negropean features in an effort increase their projects’ chances for approval and box office success.
To put it another way, because Steve McQueen is a British African and not an American African, the fears that would have prevented an African American director from casting an actress of Lupita Nyong’o’s hue didn’t apply to him, thus enabling him to pick the best person for the job.
Here’s why I don’t completely subscribe to that train of thought: Though England may have abolished slavery 32 years before America did, the fact remains England was STILL part of the Slave Trade, and had been for a very long time.
And England has as much blood on its hands as America does, when it comes to the way it oppressed and dehumanized our People.
In that light, I fail to see anything particularly groundbreaking or enlightened in McQueen’s mindset.
If anything, maybe Steve McQueen was just bold enough (or arrogant enough) to cast an actress with the academic credentials (Nyong’o has an MFA from the Yale School of Drama) and talent needed to tell the story he wanted told.
Maybe he wanted the most qualified actress for the role, irrespective of what she looked like.
Or maybe – and this is probably the more likely scenario – McQueen made a calculated risk of incalculable reward, if he could pull it off.
After all, Steve McQueen is not only being praised for his ability as a director; he has also been revered as a god because he cast a dark-skinned actress in a role usually reserved for her lighter-skinned counterparts.
That hardly seems unintentional.
Like it or not, however, colorism within the African American community is still a huge problem, and we need to make it a point to include conversations about the impact it has on our people in our overall dialogue on empowerment.
So, if there’s a sliver lining in all this, it would be “12 Years a Slave” sparked that dialogue.
The larger question? How do we advance the conversation on the evils of colorism, once the Oscar euphoria wears off?
I’m open to suggestions.
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