by TRN Staff Writers,
Her name isn’t as famous as Viola Davis or Kerry Washington, but Journee Smollett-Bell has something those two actresses don’t–lighter skin complexion. And the actress sees it as both a blessing and a despicable truth about colorism in Hollywood.
In the March issue of EBONY magazine, the “Underground” actress talks boldly about a topic that is still a sensitive one in the Black community. Smollett-Bell says “There are obstacles and challenges that my dark-skinned sisters face that I will never know. How they are perceived when they walk in a room of strangers is something I will never truly know.”
Before you take Smollett-Bell’s comments as a brag or a boast, she’s only stating a truth that you just have to look at TV or the movie screen to see. Even when the show or movie is about a Black family, the preference seems to be geared towards the not so brown skinned. We all remember the negative comments made when mid-way it six seasons on NBC, Will Smith’s hit sit-com the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” character ‘Aunt Viv’ changed from the chocolate skin Janet Hubert to the more fair complexion Daphne Maxwell Reid. Smith’s character made an on-camera joke noting how Aunt Viv looked different, but the audience was already aware. Though Hubert was replaced because of behind the scenes differences with the show runners, people wondered why an actress closer to her complexion wasn’t chosen.
Movie and TV audiences are used to Hollywood White-washing characters, using more established actors like Elizabeth Taylor to play Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Laurence Olivier as “Othello” by smearing dark makeup on them to pass as people of color. Last year, Hollywood turned White-washing into Black washing when Zoe Saldana was put in dark make-up to play singer and activist Nina Simone. There was a lot of backlash over the biopic when complaints turned into outrage once photos of the actress were released of her in dark makeup and an Afro wig. Critics argued that there were plenty of Black actresses who could play the role instead of the Black singer instead of Saldana who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent.
Smollett-Bell is aware that her lighter complexion has opened doors that might have stayed closed if she were darker. The 30 year old has been acting since she was a child first appearing in TV sitcoms with reoccurring roles on shows like “Full House” and “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper”. By the time she was only ten-years old, Smollett-Bell was receiving critical acclaim for her role in “Eve’s Bayou” with Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield. Smollett-Bell was chosen for the role because the director said he was looking for “a light-skinned black child who could convey the nuances of a Creole child in the 60’s“. Even though her complexion may have opened the door, it was talent that led to Smollett-Bell winning the Critic’s Choice Award and a nomination for an NAACP Image Award.
While her skin tone may have been the right look for many roles, it’a probably presumable that her look, as well as her age, height, weight could have cost her roles as well. Not every role for a Black actress requires her look…sometimes you need a Viola Davis or a Kerry Washington to bring the story’s character as envisioned to life.
With Hollywood taking baby-steps to bring more diversity to Hollywood, perhaps Smollet-Bell won’t always have what she feels is an advantage. Smollett-Bell says, “I would be ignorant to say colorism doesn’t exist. It’s gross and disgusting.” Calling Hollywood out for colorism may drag the “disgusting” practice into the light of exposure and make more Black directors, writers and show runners hire actors based on talent and not how close they look to being White.