Next week, at the Annual International Black Film Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, Bill Duke and D Channsin Berry will premiere their new documentary, Dark Girls. The film looks at the everyday experiences of dark-skinned black women in the US. The blurb from the official site promises that the directors will “[pull] back our country’s curtain to reveal that the deep-seated biases and hatreds of racism — within and outside of the black American culture — remain bitterly entrenched.”
When the filmmakers released a preview of Dark Girls in May, it spread like wildfire across social media sites and black entertainment blogs. Some viewers wrote about being moved to tears by the nine minutes of film they’d seen and many mentioned how long in coming such a film was. Why did the documentarians decide to tackle this subject and why now? For Duke, a veteran of Hollywood — co-star of Car Wash and Predator — it was down to personal experience. “It came from me being a dark-skinned black man in America, and also observing what [dark-skinned] relatives like my sister and niece have gone through. The issue exists externally of our race, but a lot of it comes within the race itself and our perception of ourselves.”
Berry recalls being called “darkie” at elementary school by his fellow classmates, “and even some family members were like: ‘He is really dark. Why is he so dark?’ It left a scar. So when Bill came to me, within the first couple of seconds, I was on board.”
“Shadism” lurks in our collective peripheral vision and rears its ugly head every so often. Earlier this year, there was a Twitter storm over a promotional flyer for a party in Ohio whose theme was light skin vs dark skin.
In May, the Afro Hair and Beauty show in London had a stall advertising and selling skin-lightening products. The stall was called Fair and White. In an interview with black newspaper the Voice, the
co-organizer of the show, Verna McKenzie, said that she had “a responsibility to cater to the marketplace.” Two years ago, makeup giant L’Oreal was accused of lightening the skin of singer Beyonce in ads (it denied the claim), and last year, Elle magazine was accused of doing the same to actor Gabourey Sidibe (it said “nothing out of the ordinary” had been done to the photograph). Last month, a study conducted at Villanova University in Pennsylvania found that lighter-skinned women were more likely to receive shorter prison sentences than darker-skinned women, receiving approximately 12 percent less time behind bars.
The women in Dark Girls discuss the role melanin has played in their lives. One woman recalls asking her mother to add bleach to her bathwater so she “could escape the feelings that I had about not being as beautiful, as lovable.” Another says: “It was so damaging, it made us feel like we were ‘less than.’” The preview also shows a clip from a 2010 pilot study in which schoolchildren were asked to select from pictures of dolls ranging from light to dark. The researcher asks a five-year-old black girl to show her the smart child. The girl points to the image of the lightest child. She does the same when the researcher asks her to pick the good-looking child. Her reasons are “because she’s white” and “because she’s light-skinned.” By contrast, she selects the darkest child when asked to pick out the “ugly” child and the “dumb” child. This time, her reason is “’cause she’s black.”