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Does Colorism Matter?

“But why does their skin tone matter, he asked. To me if they black, they black.”

The movie, The Harder They Fall, has made it’s way to Netflix and before viewing it, the conversation of colorism made its way to social media. The movie itself is a western but in a way we haven’t experienced much of them. Normally shown as less than, black characters are thrust into leading roles as both outlaw and cowboy. The majority of the cast are black actors and actresses but director Jeymes Samuel doesn’t consider it a “black western.”

“It’s just a story about these people in their own world, just like ‘Rio Bravo’ is a story about John Wayne and Dean Martin in their own world,” said the director over Zoom. “Like ‘Unforgiven’ is a story about Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood in their own world. These aren’t white westerns or white movies, they’re just movies.”

Although the story draws from a fictional background, the characters in the movie are based on real history. One character in particular Mary Fields or Stage Coach Mary is at the forefront of this colorism controversy. Not much is known about the real-life Mary Fields but what we do know about the hard-drinking, shot-gun toting mail carrier was she secured mail routes from thieves and bandits and delivered mail. She was the first African American woman in the position and only the 2nd woman ever to hold it.

Portrayed by Zazie Beetz who is light skinned, she delivered a no-nonsense performance full of grit and fearlessness, traits that would be used to describe the real-life Mary. And although director Samuel’s was clear that his intention was not to cast a movie with characters based on the real-life versions of these people, history makes this character portrayal feel a bit uncomfortable.

Stagecoach Mary was a dark-skin black woman born into slavery and legend has it she had a difficult temperament and loved a gun-fight. Strong willed and a survivalist, its attributes like these that made America discard black women.

During slavery they were ushered outside to work in field because they were too dark to be inside. The Mammy Caricature, a fat, black happy woman, who loved her white families was used to desexualize black women, making her less appealing while the ‘Father of Modern Genecology’ James Sims performed research experiments on black women without anesthesia because he believed they did not feel pain.

Hollywood is an even bigger culprit in regards to modern-day colorism. Examples like Zoe Saldana rocking a prosthetic nose and darkened skin in her portrayal of Nina Simone. On the smaller screen during the Fresh Prince of Bel-air heyday, Aunt Viv played by Janet Hubert who is dark skin was replaced by a lighter, less talkative aunt Vi played by Daphne Maxwell Reid. Raising Dion, a super-hero comic series turned Netflix hit was pitched used a dark skinned woman as the leading character’s mom. However when the show premiered, the mother had been replaced by light-skin actress Alisha Wainwright.

Colorism is just another hurdle in the long list of obstacles used to undermine black people. Yes colorism matters rightfully so as it has added to the burden and misrepresentation of black people. Just like our stories are diverse and full of color, the last thing we want is for them to be watered down or white washed. And if it can’t be told with the vigor the black community deserves, do us a favor and just don’t.

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