An Open Letter to Hollywood: Is It Just Me, Or Do Women Of Darker Complexions Always Get Cast In The Stereotypical, Negative Roles?

December 13, 2012  |  

I was excited to see the movie Alex Cross not too long ago.  The idea of one of my favorite celebrities, Tyler Perry, appearing in a role that was quite different from all of his others was enough to make me buy a ticket and go support him.  I was impressed with the movie, but what I was not impressed with was their selection of characters.  I must say, I was disappointment to discover that one of the few women in the movie who was of a darker complexion was once again playing something extremely negative. Another female stereotype for dark-skinned women.  Come on Hollywood, enough is enough!

This movie was not the first time females of a darker complexion have been featured in stereotypical, negative roles.  This unfortunate typecasting that is happening so frequently that the list of ghetto and criminal roles is becoming exhaustive.  The dark-skinned female in Alex Cross was not only a criminal, but she was inarticulate as well. And this depiction made me think back on many other beautiful black women who looked like this woman and played a similar character on-screen. Angela’s character from the Why Did I Get Married movies and series is extremely loud and uncouth.  The sole hood character in the beloved “The Proud Family” series, Dijonay, was a dark-skinned little girl.  The drugged out prostitute, Candy, in Madea goes to Jail was dark-skinned.   The list goes on and on and on.  It’s a good thing I have enough sense to know that criminals and those with no level of tact come in all complexions, or else I may have been inclined to think the only women capable of living sub-standard lives are dark-skinned.

In the ’60s and ’70s there were a number of positive portrayals of women of darker complexions in both movies and television.  The “Black is beautiful” motto afforded all types of black women the opportunity to be cast in a variety of roles. Dark-skinned beauties like Roxie Roker and Isabel Sanford played wealthy, married women in the long-running sitcom The Jeffersons.  Isabel Sanford’s historic Emmy win for her role in The Jeffersons proved that others appreciated her talent and the versatility she brought to her character. And don’t even get me started on the graceful (but broke) Florida Evans on Good Times, or Maxine Shaw in Living Single. So what is going on with the limited positive characters for us now?

It may all boil down to our people and the power we hold in the media.  Before I get electronically blacklisted, please read on.  More and more African Americans have made influential decisions in what occurs in television and movies.  To whites, black people are black people regardless of skin tone.  We are usually the only ones hung up on the different shades we come in.  I’m aware that there are other groups of people that experience colorism, but for the sake of argument, I’m only referencing black people and white people.  Once white people opened up to the idea of allowing us to be in the media, there was usually a wide range of black people they selected for various roles.  Fast forward to today’s world and we can find a large assortment of dark-skinned women playing criminals or hood rats and an even larger variety of light-skinned women playing classy, sought after women.  Who is responsible for these distorted depictions of black women?

I believe we hold the power to promote or eliminate these biased viewpoints.  Considering a dark-skinned woman is the First Lady of the United States, one would assume most of these inaccurate stereotypes would have been removed. But when we hear about people like S. Epatha Merkerson who had no problem vocalizing her displeasure with seeing a dark-skinned child playing a role she felt should have gone to a fair-skinned child, I realized exactly where stereotypes and negative undertones may come from.  When our own people attempt to remove a role, recognition, and compensation from another solely because “she didn’t feel that a white person and a black person can create a dark child,” I can see why a lot of our roles are limited or menial at best.

Ms. Merkerson seems to share similar opinions of some rappers, actors, and other celebrities. They appear to have no qualms about stating their preferences and the scales do not generally tip in favor of women. with a darker complexion  While it’s acceptable to state preferences, it is really starting to be unacceptable to continuously equate dark-skinned women with demoralizing traits more often than not.  If you ask me, if it weren’t for loud, angry, criminal, and “Aunt Jemima” looking mammy roles dark-skinned women would be even hidden in Hollywood than they already are.

Just because I have an adequate understanding of the origin of many stereotypes doesn’t mean it should be tolerated even if many of them come from our own people.  As I anxiously await more and more dark-skinned women to be represented fairly in the media, I will continue to be thankful for the ones who are making strides with more positive roles–however small in number they may be.

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  • I am more into African culture. I love it because its very inspirational and uplifting. African culture gives me the affirmation i see pride, culture, and unity.African culture makes me feel even more proud of being Black and having dark skin unlike this White washed African American culture that puts light skin high yellow red bone women on a pedal stool above as being the beautiful Black woman.African American culture makes me feel inferior, makes me feel like i am second class because of my dark skin. i think the African American culture needs to be more embracing of all shades of Black and STOP depicting light skin women are being the ultimate superior beauty in the Black community

  • I have noticed over the years that even in movies directed by African Americans and the majority of the cast are African Americans, you always see a bi racial, multi racial light skin woman or Latina woman playing the bride, wife, girlfriend, sex symbol, eye candy to the Black man. When ever you do see a dark skin Black women she plays big mama, auntie, the side kick or the ghetto obnoxious Black woman. It frustrates me that the main roles or the beauty roles are all given to light skin actresses. Even in the Black community i guess they are implying that dark skin is not beautiful

  • get real

    Ever notice that EVERY black A list actress has had kissing, sex or some kind of love scene with white men? Whether its A list in looks or talent. Have u ever seen an interracial love scene with an A list white actress? Of course not. And why? Because white America wouldn’t support that movie and even possibly stop supporting that actress. Blk men wearing dresses and being gangsters in every movie. Blk menwomen got to sell our souls to get roles in Hollywood.

  • Pat

    Most black people are of a dark complexion, even though we come in all shades. Please stop wiht the light vs dark stories. White people don’t care – you are all black to them.

  • DoinMe

    This is nothing new. It’s been happening since the invention of film. Loud, obnoxious people come in all shades. It’s all about programming the masses to believe that dark skin= scary, undesirable, and ugly.

  • After reading Tyler Perry is one of your favorite celebrities…I tuned out -_- isn’t he a stereotype within himself

  • Miss_Understood

    IDK…I’ve seen both light and dark skinned women play negative roles i.e. Halle Berry in Losing Isaiah or Kimberly Elise in Diary of a Mad Black Woman vs the light skinned lady who played the misstress…some actresses are limited and may not be able to perform in non stereotypical roles, just look at how they act in interviews and you will get an idea that some of them are really just playing themselves

  • AfroRican85

    @sammi_lu I see where you are coming from as far as casting not keeping characters’ complexions congruent especially at the time when black family sitcoms were few and far between but actually if you REALLY look at it casting did a great job on showing what typically happens in a black family. I come from a large “afro-latin” family with a good amount of siblings (with the same mother and father) and we all differ in shade and greatly at that. Think about it, what two black people have the same shade anyway?. Didn’t you notice that Clliff’s father was very fair-skinned while he was not but the two eldest children were fair? That happens a lot more than you think since certain traits like skin tone skip generations. I actually think that made if more believable to me and was a great reperesentation of the various shades of black people which are all beautiful. In regard to the opinion of the author I would have to agree that I do see that as well. If we as blacks CREATED more of own entertainment and stopped relying on “Old Hollywood” to cut us a break we can start reshaping and redefining our standard of beauty on our own terms. Tyler Perry shouldn’t be the only person we look to for that.

    • lola

      I agree totally…

  • Pingback: Does Hollywood negatively stereotype darker-hued black women? | theGrio()

  • I agree with you, but there should be a more vocal movement about this. I am very dark-skinned and so is my daughter. It is difficult to try and reinforce to her how beautiful she is when everyone from Lil Wayne to her peers make her feel that she is “too black” too be considered beautiful. As her mother, she feels that I am supposed to say these things to her. Not enough of OUR community speaks out against this colorism that continues even in this day and age.

    • I agree. My daughter and I have deep complexions. I will tell my daughter when she gets old enough that God never makes mistakes. If anyone has a problem with her God-given skin then they can take that up with the Creator.

  • for real now?

    Hollywood is so corny and behind the times. Sorry, that is my truth as I see it. A lot of these movies and tv shows tend to be behind the 8 ball when it comes to black people. It sucks because so many people look towards media for self validation but for me, I pay them no mind. I don’t need media to tell me my brown skin is beautiful. Furthermore, I don’t need media to tell me I am an intelligent, complex human being (not a stereotype).

    I do feel sorry for the black actresses in entertainment because Hollywood definently boxes them in.

  • IllyPhilly

    I actually agree with this, I was thinking about this when I took a peek at Poetic Justice again as an adult. It’s either the hot mess ghetto girl or snobby roles.

  • Patricia

    I thought I was the one that had that same thought about lack of dark skinned women in leading roles. It does seem like all the dark skinned women get the do get the loud mouth, criminal, crack head negative roles. Especially in all black movies and all black shows I noticed that. The lead role they give it a light skin or bi-racial female. Now, I do give Byron Allen a little bit of credit in the show ” The First Family” even though Kellita has a lead role. My wife and kids Damon Wayans had a pretty dark skin girl as Claire then she was replace by Jennifer Freeman after the first season. I was upset about that. It is to the point I hate to even support black shows, it seems like the only this they sterotype is light skinned, bi-racial women in leading roles.

  • twentyswt

    In all honesty you have choices in watching shows that are either uplifting in character portrayls or not. I don’t really watch the Tyler Perry shows because their filled with stereotypes period regardless of whether the character is darker skinned or not. Personally I support Issa Rae and her web series Akward Black Girl she’s beautiful, funny and smart without the negativity. Support more shows like that and leave the stereotypes alone.

    • Suchalady


  • Kaori

    I don’t think I’ve seen a movie or show where a light or dark complexioned Black woman was not cast in a stereotypical role.

  • kierah

    @Ashley – no, it’s not just you.

  • Beejcee

    I remember the Law and Order episode you are referring. The plot involved a white man, who was black passing as white, and his white wife’s offspring. Merkerson felt in all reality the child would have been born with a fairer skin tone, so she lobbied for a fair skinned child to ensure the plot was believable (her words not mine).

    • Thank you for clarifying (which I think the author should have done) about S. Epatha Merkerson. Given her roles and her interest to help missing black children, I found being color struck would be unlike her. I did a search online and she states she wanted to bring realism to African American portrayal (paraphrasing). While it’s not impossible for a fair-skinned black person and a white person to have a dark skinned child, its not exactly likely. Its the same lack of realism we complain about when we see a dark skinned couple with a fair skinned, curly haired, sandy-blonde child in commercials and television programs.

      I love watching programming from the 70s to 90s because they were so unapologetically black and diverse. I dare to say when racial ambiguity began to appear in our music videos, it also began to appear in other facets of our entertainment – to the point where we dismiss full-featured, brown skinned blacks. IMO.

      • Cleo

        I agree 100%
        Full black people are being replaced by biracial or multiethnic people and a lot of black people don’t see the problem with it.

        • Miss_Understood

          That’s because a lot of Black people ARE multi ethnic…who really do you know (in the U.S.) that is 100% Black?

          I recall a study done a few years ago in which a computerized image of what the average American would like in 50 years and the photo was very similar to that of a biracial, multi ethnic person with clear African heritage

          • I am. I am descendants of slaves that picked cotton in Georgia. Thus, my dark skin. There are STILL many Black people who are just Black.

            • Miss_Understood

              So, your ancestors were the “lucky ones” who were NEVER raped or had illegitimate children with whites for hundreds of years…

              • If you want to call that “lucky” to be forced to work for free in a foreign land, ripped from everything that they know…

                • Miss_Understood

                  That’s not what I am referring to…I was being sarcastic in saying that I do not believe you are 100% Black. I know that I don’t know you but if you ever have a genealogy assessment I would bet my savings that you have mixed blood somewhere down the line

      • Numero Uno

        Excellent comment. I agree 100%. Thank you for clarifying the point S,Epatha Merkeson was trying to make…which the author should have done.

    • sammi_lu

      I agree with Merkerson, when I see an example of this on tv or movies it makes me feel a certain way. Like the person responsible for casting the role just threw any kid in the role as long as he/she was black. Even though the Cosby Show was everything to me growing up, as a child watching it I remember thinking maybe some of the kids were adopted or half siblings because of the extreme contrast between the oldest daughter Sondra who was very fair skinned, and Rudy who was dark skinned.

  • rita

    I think the problem is black women are absent too much in general from TV in substantive, non-stereotypical roles, not that dark-skinned women are being singled out for the stereotypical roles. In fact, maybe because too many BW roles are stereotypical, lighter types often end up relegated to blk media. At the point when they’re going to have a BW who is non-stereotypical, I don’t think the yt media cares about her skin color. Kerry Washington and Meagan Good are leads in TV shows, and I wouldn’t call either of them light skinned (although they’re not super dark, either). I’m ashamed to say I’ve watched the Secret Life of the American Teenager and they have a non-stereotypical black supporting character who has beautiful ebony skin.

    • sabrina

      YES! Girl, I watch that too on the low. She also played Vanessa in the Bernie Mac show!

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