'Light Girls' doc gives superficial treatment to a legitimate issue
I made myself watch the documentary Light Girls on OWN Monday night.
Now, before you get upset, know first that I feel I have the right to characterize it in exactly this fashion because I was present for a 2011 premiere of the first documentary, Dark Girls — you know, the one that actually made sense.
When the lights came up in the theater of Chicago’s DuSable Museum, I felt triumphant because for the first time, the plight of dark-skinned women was actually handled with the sensitivity and respect it deserved.
Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry were there, and the audience wanted to embrace them for a job well done.
Then they announced that the second installment would be called Light Girls.
While the realist in me knew that every black woman has been scarred by colorism, the skeptic in me knew that they would be hard-pressed to translate to an audience how a light woman’s pain is as great as a dark woman’s pain given the higher status placed upon light skin in today’s black society.
I don’t believe Duke’s second documentary was able to fully capture the pain of lighter-skinned women, but it definitely showcased the psychological damage of black people, which while initially inflicted by slaveholders, has been proudly carried on by blacks for generations.
If you will recall, Dark Girls took on the topic of colorism — which is defined as “the discrimination of African-Americans by skin tone in their own community.” Dark-skinned women spoke about their experiences and gave tangible examples of how harshly they have been treated based solely upon the hue of their skin.
I expected Duke would use a similar approach with Light Girls, and in many ways, he did attempt to do just that.
Light Girls had great moments of clarity. It brilliantly laid out the history of how African-Americans came to have so many skin tones during the antibellum period; how these colors were graded, and how even though light skin brought few privileges, having that small “edge” over darker-skinned blacks planted the roots of colorism as we know it today.
Michaela Angela Davis noted that early on, lighter skin color meant a greater chance of survival. She described how her ancestors were encouraged to marry and procreate with other light people because if you were light, as Ms. Davis described, you literally lived a life less likely to end abruptly from being hunted and lynched or suffering any number of the other degradations that befell blacks.
The promise of a better lifestyle led to some lighter-skinned blacks making the decision to “pass,” or pretend to be white. Those who wanted to successfully pass often had to break all ties to their families for fear of being found out. She and other women who spoke about this aspect did a great job.
Several heart-wrenching examples of how light skin can be a burden came in the form of a story about one woman’s struggle with albinism and how her brother did not want to admit being related to her biologically. Another woman felt her light skin made her a target for molestation by family members from an early age. Other women discussed overt sexual advances made against them as if their bodies were community property.
Almost all the women discussed regular beatings by darker-children at school, who were “jealous of their long pretty hair and light skin.”
It was at this point in my opinion that the film lost its effectiveness, because just like real life, the mantra of “light skin is automatically beautiful” was brought up so often, it became the rule.
Come to think of it, there was hardly an instance where “light” and “pretty” didn’t go hand in hand, as if there was never any question that light skin could be otherwise. However, that isn’t what hurt the film most.
It was the overwhelming superficiality of several of the interviewees that made the documentary less credible. While the strength of Dark Girls existed in the depth of the women who shared their stories, one of the most confusing things about Light Girls was why certain people were even included at all.
It was as if being famous was the only credential for several of these subjects and not how impactful their actual stories were.
One subject in particular, Kym Whitley was born to what she calls a “very light-skinned mother” and a “darker father,” which she said made her overcompensate by acting “blacker” — which to her seems to be synonymous with “ghetto.”
More glaringly, she never mentions that she herself has light skin, which gave her story an almost “light by association” feel.
Another woman, Tatyana Ali, literally grew up before our eyes on TV and would not pass anyone’s “paper bag test.” Truth be told, she fit very snugly with the darker members of The Fresh Prince cast. While she does have very straight hair, should we take her inclusion in this documentary to mean that any physical attribute more European that African will suffice when talking about “light?”
Also, I never saw Amber Rose’s tiny tear as she talked about how Creole people have culture, but African-Americans … well, according to her, not so much. Finally, the six million dollar question: where did Wayne Brady come from, and what in the world was he talking about?
Laughs abounded with this group, which is never a good sign when trying to get someone to take a subject seriously. Perhaps confusion is really the point that the director wanted to express with this haphazard selection of women and men — some of whom seemed to be almost feigning pain, while not so silently reveling in the empty advantages of light skin and false superiority.
There is no denying one major truth: Light Girls showcased the fact that black people of all shades have been damaged. Well-trodden stereotypes were thrown around very loosely.
Acting “black” was described as acting “street” without giving it a second thought. And the requisite “skin tone equals behavior” references were sprinkled all over the place, i.e., while the light women interviewed stated that people automatically assumed they were stuck up, the black men in the film described dark women as gullible and desperate.
Dark women are described like beasts of burden, who are willing to work harder, take any treatment and put up with any behavior, while light women have higher standards and will leave men at the drop of a hat if they don’t get what they feel they are entitled to.
The souls and value of all black women were once again diminished through the eyes of black men who regularly choose lighter-skinned women while leaving darker women out in the cold.
However, though no black man wants to admit it in polite company, due to greater access and the wearing down of societal taboos, it’s arguable that even black women with lighter skin are no longer the “trophy” but rather the consolation prize.
Several psychologists, Dr. Ronald Hall in particular, were able to aptly describe just what we’re suffering from. While several black men stated how often they choose a woman by skin color, like clockwork, a well-timed scene featured a white man stating that he couldn’t even remember which of the women he dated were light or dark.
You want to know why? Because to most people looking from the outside in, we are all simply “black” to them. Why then do we refuse to simply be “just black” to ourselves?
What Light Girls makes apparent is that our condition is a mental and spiritual sickness. It is also apparent that it’s not really about being light or seeing yourself as just a bit lighter than someone else.
It’s not even so much about how having a little straighter hair or a bit lighter eye color than another person makes a big difference in how you value yourself, or how you are valued by other black people. Ultimately, it’s about hating any iota of anything that makes you black and resenting anyone else that is closer to the European ideal.
By the end of this documentary, I said to myself, “When does it all end?” When will we decide that it is unacceptable to continue the dysfunction of hating ourselves and separating our race? When will we stop inflicting pain on our children based on how dark or light they happen to be born?
I feel that what we need is for parents to finally do their job of unconditionally loving their children and breaking the hold this insanity has over our race. Given the external issues we face, our very existence depends on how united we are.
Until black people are ready, willing, and able to proactively arm their children with enough self-love to drown out the messages of both the world and our internal selves, we will continue to act out on this craziness.