Color and Casting

Color and Casting

Colorism (According to Oxford’s Online Dictionary): prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.

The “Brown Paper Bag” Test:

Black individuals with skin lighter than a brown paper bag would typically gain more privileges than those who had a darker complexion compared to the color of a brown paper bag. This test was mostly used in the 1900s to determine if a black person looked white enough to gain acceptance or admittance into the upper class part of society.

Color has been something that has separated many things - crayons, laundry, and especially people. While discrimination against people of color is often talked about and brought up on various platforms, it does not seem like there is enough being said about colorism within non-white communities, like the black community. As a dark skinned African-American woman in a colorful family, I’ve grown up hearing many sides of how black people tend to receive different treatment based on the shade of brown they are. For those on the outside looking in at this issue, I am going to explain the effects of colorism in two contemporary films.

Hollywood in general often receives a lot of controversy when it comes to who they choose for roles, especially in films that are supposed to receive a lot of attention when they hit theaters. One of the many reasons for why a movie’s casting can be controversial is when a role based on an actual person, a well known fictitious figure, or even an individual who ideally is supposed to be of a certain ethnic background- is portrayed by an actor who does not accurately fit the description. Whitewashing has been a big hot button topic lately, as there is a belief that movies will sell better if there is a well known white actor involved. There are far too many examples to highlight, but a few that caused major discussion were Emma Stone’s portrayal of an Asian woman in Aloha (2015), the three principle actors in The Last Airbender (2010), Ben Affleck portraying a Mexican-American man in Argo (2012), Tilda Swinton as a Buddist monk in Doctor Strange (2016), and Scarlett Johansson playing a character from Japanese anime in Ghost in a Shell (2017).

To many, these examples are clear indicators of of casting done incorrectly, but there are also examples with films featuring stories of people of color where the ethnic background is accurate but not the right skin color. Why is this so important? Well to start, many of the key issues and conflicts within these plots tend to stem from not just the background, but the appearance of the character. This is too crucial of a detail to get wrong, especially in films that wish to showcase a portrait of someone’s black experience. Skin color is a character in itself. This can not be overlooked, otherwise the story will lose some important value in its message. No matter how well an actor can transform themselves for a role, acting the part is really half of the battle.

NINA (2016)

Director Cynthia Mort, best known for writing for the sitcom Roseanne , released this film as her directorial debut. This biopic of the late, great singer and artist Nina Simone was already eleven years in the making, and many critics had voiced that it should never been released, as not enough research and care was taken with handling the story of an individual who was more than just a black woman with the blues. Mort had spent a day with Ms. Simone in the early 90s and didn’t know herself that it would one day be the inspiration for her first film as a director. She was no doubt in awe of the singer and wanted to do something to honor her memory. It is evident that Mort did her best to research many aspects of Simone’s life, but I believe that the biggest plight of her life was lost in translation, simply because Mort could not relate to the story. As a white woman, she did not consult nearly enough black women, or even those who knew Nina well in general to be able to authentically capture what really brought out the emotion behind Simone’s voice.

In 2012, it was announced that Zoe Saldana, a well-known black but light skinned actress, would take on the role of Nina Simone in Mort’s film.

This is where any potential for the film finding positive acclaim had diminished. Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, had even mentioned publicly that Saldana was not the best choice to portray her mother. Because Nina Simone grew up in a time where she was told “her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” casting a woman who couldn’t naturally relate with that struggle took away a great deal of what made Ms. Simone so unique and powerful. Simone’s family and estate denounced any ties to the film and were very vocal about their outrage towards it. A white director sticking to the decision to use a light skinned woman (who in the picture above had to paint her face in order to appear to have ‘dark’ skin) is indirectly a display of anti-black racism and further proof that the closer a black individual is to whiteness, the more desirable they are. Nina Simone’s life and legacy completely defied this notion, yet this is how she is being represented and shown to audiences.

I do not doubt that Mort’s heart was in the right place, but I cannot forgive the fact that her mind was not. Those close to Ms. Simone and those who know well of her personality would agree that even Nina herself would be insulted by this if she were alive and knew that this is how she was being shown in a film.

The trailer of the film Nina:


I personally cannot bring myself to watch the actual film based on what I’ve seen in this trailer alone. As a dark skinned woman, I know that I would certainly be offended if I knew a light skinned woman would be portraying me, since a huge part of my identity is based around how I learned to love the skin I’ve been given.


Chadwick Boseman, a prominent black actor and dark skinned man, portrays Thurgood Marshall on screen. Boseman has actually got a great track record with representing the black community well. His filmography includes other starring roles in biopics such as 42 (2013), where he played the hall of famer baseball player Jackie Robinson and Get On Up (2015), where he portrayed the wild and complicatedly brilliant singer and musician James Brown, not to mention The Black Panther coming out this year in February, where we will see him and a mostly black cast portray heroic individuals who are also African royalty.

This makes me wonder why Boseman wanted to take on this influential figure when, unlike for his roles of Robinson and Brown, he does not carry a believable resemblance at all to the subject.

Hudlin is known for making many cult classics for the black community such House Party (1990), Boomerang , (1992), The Great White Hype (1996), The

Ladies Man (2000), etc but this will be is first time debuting a cinematic biopic. His motivation behind creating the film is pretty clear, but one might question what exactly made him decide on Boseman for the lead role. Boseman is clearly great at portraying black icons, but that doesn’t mean he needs to do it even when he has little to no likeness to the person at all. I guess I do appreciate that unlike the Nina film, Boseman did not have to wear makeup to make his skin appear lighter in order to portray Thurgood Marshall. That would have been another case of insult to injury.

Some would say this is a very minor setback, as it is predicted that Boseman will deliver another amazing performance in this role, but that is not what I’m doubting here. I’m more so worry about Thurgood’s story.

I’m sure that the plot of this film will be very engaging and the story within will have very moving and poignant aspects, but the actual Thurgood Marshall could not do a lot of what he did at that time if he was as dark as Boseman is. It feels weird for me to celebrate the release of Marshall like I did with Selma (2014) and other works that put revolutionary black leaders on the big screen, when I know already that a big part of what made his life what it was, is the fact that he had light skinned privilege. Marshall would definitely pass the brown paper bag test.

My first reaction when I first heard that this film was in the works was confusion rather than outrage. Surely there are great light skinned black men who could have taken on this role, just like there were deserving darker skinned women who could have accurately depicted Nina Simone.

Part of me understands that we’ve seen so much brilliance from Boseman that maybe it’s just assumed that he can play nearly anyone - but that is a very slippery slope and I would hope that Boseman doesn’t repeat something like this in the future. He is a great talent who doesn’t always need to be the lead, especially in a film based on a light skinned black man who used his advantage to help him get ahead in the rankings of the justice system.

I take biopics very seriously. The actor chosen to play the role, as well as the story and the key elements in the plot need to be on point, otherwise I find myself very disappointed. You are essentially showing the life and legacy of someone to people who may or may not know of that person, but feel as though they will learn more about them through watching the film. Some of the best biopics I’ve seen that beautifully capture their subject’s character and adversities are Selena (1997), Ray (2004), and Frida (2002). Not only was the casting nearly spot on, but the performance of the actors along with the story of these individual's lives comes off as authentic without me having to think too hard about how accurate the details are while watching it. I’m not claiming that these are perfect depictions, as it’s very difficult to have a completely truthful biopic and there is always some point of bias being shown, but I have always thought those those three did an incredible job of focusing more on the person rather than their politics.

I do actually plan on seeing the movie Marshall. Even though I am not satisfied with the casting since it will already make the story partially inaccurate, it still presents some type of empowerment for black people.

The trailer for Marshall: 


The Nina film is unnecessarily dramatized to make Ms. Simone a lost soul, who needed the saving of a kind man to stay by her side even as she grew bitter. Maybe that display of Mort’s version of Nina Simone wouldn’t be that terrible to see if it was an actual dark skinned woman, who was communicating this struggle to overcome oppression along with her personal demons. Having a light skinned woman try to explore that while wearing brown paint is unfathomable. It continues the history of darker black women being treated as jokes, not even worthy enough to play women that were naturally dark like themselves on screen. Though this may appear as a double standard, having a dark skinned individual take the place as a light skinned one does not come off as damaging. It seems that black audiences are still getting used to seeing themselves in mainstream films in a positive light. Rarely do we conquer and outsmart our oppressive white counterparts, or the system which oppresses us in general without facing some fatal retaliation or lesson that will carry on to cause further pain among our our people. Marshall is triumphant. A celebration of the black mind and I will look forward to that more than it revealing a new perspective into the life of Thurgood Marshall.

As an upcoming filmmaker myself, works like these make me more cautious in how I will chose to represent people in the stories I create, whether they are based on real individuals or not. The skin color of a person does not just impact how they will be viewed by others around the world, but within their own communities - and of course, themselves. A message will be sent to the audience merely by the person chosen to lead the story. This alone is a key factor in making a work of film either feel relatable or out of touch with reality.

People should be judged by their content, not by their color; but characters on screen need to at least be the right color in order for us to judge the content of the film or how that person’s life is being visually shown to us. 

Head image sourced from

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