Let’s talk about white/light erasure in Hollywood, the media, and Black communities.
If you guys can remember, The Princess and the Frog (2009) [literally my favorite movie of all time], was a movie starring a Black female protagonist, and her Black male love interest. It was a movie about love, but the underlying theme was about navigating discrimination in the pursuit to following your dreams. It was about love, and fate, and destiny, and all of the things that make a Disney movie a Disney movie, but it was the first time in Disney history, that an African-American princess existed, let alone prospered and thrived.
It came out December 11, 2009, so 8 years ago next month. As soon as it came out, I saw it for my 12th birthday. As a young girl drowning adolescence and trying to find her own meaning of beautiful, despite hearing that her chocolate skin made her less, it was a meaningful experience for me. I was so used to seeing African-Americans as antagonists in not only movies, but portrayed that way in real life as well.
If you’ve been keeping up with your movie news, or the Twitterverse, you might have seen that The Princess & the Frog is being turned into a live-action play. I was excited, but couldn’t really hide my disappointment about who they chose to play Princess Tiana.
Shadowandact.com released an exclusive article announcing Mekia Cox, an African American actress who also plays Princess Tiana on ABC’s Once Upon A Time, as the first live-action version of Disney’s Princess Tiana.
Now while I’ll always be happy that a sister is prospering and getting her coint, I have to address my concern with their choice. From a business standpoint, maybe they’re saving money and promotion by casting someone who is currently already playing Tiana on a popular hit TV show, and maybe she is a really gifted actress, but that’s truly beside the point. The fact that she was casted for the part on Once Upon a Time, should be noted as well.
When The Princess & the Frog first came out, young darkskin Black girls, could finally really see themselves characterized in Disney; someone who looked just like them, talked like them, and were maybe denied the same amount of respect as their lighter counterparts, whiter counterparts, or male counterparts because of the skin and sex they were born with. Princess Tiana was a beautiful darkskin woman, given the frequent dismissal of darkskin women in Hollywood and the media. So not only was this a win for the African-American community and Black women, but it was also a much-needed W for darkskin girls.
This isn’t a “light skin vs dark skin” issue, but a “darker skin women are constantly forgotten or disregarded for their lighter counterparts” issue.
If you think back to the Nina Simone biography, Nina (2016), you may remember that Zoë Saldana was casted to play a darkskin, broad nosed, 4c haired Nina.
Zoë Saldana is a beautiful Afro-Latina woman, and a great actress nonetheless, but you have to admit that she looks nothing like Nina. Grammy award winning, soul singing India Arie stated that she didn’t blame the actress [Zoë Saldana] for taking the role, but says the blackface controversy “is ironic in the worst possible way”. Zoë taking this role, and wearing blackface and nose prostethics to do so, unintentionally served to wash away Nina Simone’s legacy and what she stood for. It’s not an issue of “being black enough”, because, just being Black, is black enough. But when you have to use prosthetics and makeup several shades darker than your skin tone to attempt to play a character with strikingly different features than yours, who partly because of what her blackness looked like was discriminated against, it’s borderline caricature. This is a sensitive issue to discuss, because while you talk about the underrepresentation of dark-skinned Black women, you have to make sure not to crucify light-skinned Black women for their success as well. There are plenty of extremely talented African-American actresses, it’s just that not all of them are cast in roles they may be better suited to. She had every right to accept the role as a Black woman, but there are times when we have to be self-aware and come to terms with the fact that yes, we might have the ability to accept this role, but maybe there is someone who could serve a more accurate portrayal.
I think it’s important to remember that we want African-Americans to succeed partly because of their blackness, and with their blackness, not in spite of their blackness.
It would be nice to live in a world where Zoë Saldana could play Nina Simone, or Mekia Cox could play Princess Tiana, and there wouldn’t have to be a conversation about it, because racism and colorism, and the systemic erasure of African-Americans no longer exist; I’m sure most Black people would agree. But we also have to be honest with ourselves and come to terms with the fact that we are dimensions away from a society like that. In my opinion, the work to get to that world, has not nearly been completed yet. Unfortunately, we aren’t “almost there”.
So since we live in this world, where race, ethnicity, gender, and sex are problems, because Eurocentric patriarchy masking itself as a “diverse melting pot” has made it so, when the role of Nina was being casted, where was Viola Davis? Brandy Norwood? Camille Winbush? When the decision was being made as to who should play the live-action Princess Tiana where was Aja Naomi King? Jennifer Hudson? Lupita Nyong’o? Again, Brandy Norwood? There are an innumerable amount of talented dark skinned actresses in Hollywood that would be perfect for many roles, even ones that they may better depict, that get skipped over for their fairer counterparts. We must recognize the issue of colorism and anti-blackness that still exists in the media and in our own communities. At some point, we have to admit, but not accept, that fairer skinned women are invariably put above and before darker skinned women in the media.
If The Princess & the Frog was a film that served to tell a story about a woman who was denied what she deserved because of the color and pigment of her skin, and spent nearly the entirety of the movie fighting for, then why ignore that?
Why whitewash/lightwash that very message?
On the Shadowandact.com article, Mekia Cox says quote,
“I also think it’s really good for young people to be able to visualize themselves in a different way.” She says, “To see these actors who look like them on screen and think “Oh I could do that. I can be strong, I can be entrepreneurial, I can be nurturing. To be able to actually see someone who looks like you do those things makes an impact on your life.”
I love that message, I love her message, but that mantra can be expressed by a darker-skinned woman just a well. I’m not saying she should be fired, or she should be slandered just because of the role she chose to play; I will never deny another Black person’s blackness because of their shade. But in a world where darkskin women are constantly the Pam to a Gina, or a Dijonay to a Penny, the second choice, the sidepiece, the lesser option, it would be nice to see ourselves taken off the shelves and put in the window display for a change. Still, the decision isn’t always as black and white as we make it seem.
As I said in my article on colorism, “Our experiences as African-Americans are different across our shades and genders, even if we share some of the same oppression.”
This is not a “shut up because we got [a] black person” issue, but a constant colorism and a relentless erasure one.
And when it all comes down to it, I just want my baby sister to be able to see herself in the same darkskin princess I found beauty in when I was her age.
Thoughts? Leave them below! ☺️
Be sure to check out some of my other articles too!
Signing off for now,