Is there such a thing as the wrong shade of black?
To some on social media, the idea of Philly native Will Smith playing the role of Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, in an upcoming film called King Richard is a case of colorism.
Over and over, the criticism has been lobbed: “He’s too light-skinned."
To others, it’s ignorant to think Smith can’t play the role of another black man because his skin tone is several shades lighter.
Lori L. Tharps, associate professor of journalism at Temple University and author of a book about colorism, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families, said the social media discussion is an example that people often don’t understand that “colorism works both ways. It doesn’t simply mean discrimination against someone with darker skin.”
Colorism is defined as a bias against people based on their skin color. In the United States and globally, colorism is often first experienced within one’s own ethnic group, often lighter-skinned people discriminating against others because their skin is darker.
That is usually the more tangible, quantifable discrimination, Tharps said, for instance, when a light-skinned person gets selected for a job over a dark-skinned person with more education. But the ways lighter-skinned black people experience colorism — that is, bias, discrimination and prejudice — is more emotional and psychological.
“Sometimes a light-skinned person will not be selected for something because it’s assumed that they think they’re better than someone else,” Tharps said. It depends on who has the power dynamic and who is doing the choosing. Other ways a light-skinned person may experience discrimination is because “they’re not seen as being authentically black.”
Tharps said in the case of King Richard, the biopic is not about his skin tone, but the hurdles the Compton, Calif., father overcame to shape Serena and Venus into world-class tennis champions.
“If Richard Williams had a very specific struggle that had to do with the darkness of his skin, that’s one thing. But his story is one of struggle, one of poverty. Of boldness. Of the audaciousness of his believing that he could train his daughters."
And Smith, a proven actor who has portrayed real-life characters — such as in The Pursuit of Happyness, Concussion and Muhammad Ali — knows what it is to experience racism and discrimination, Tharps said.
Aaron Smith, an assistant professor of African American studies, also at Temple University, defended social-media critics, saying the choice was definitely one of colorism.
“Just as there is white privilege, there is light-skinned privilege,” Smith said. He noted how Zoe Saldana, a light-skinned Afro-Latina actor, was cast to play Nina Simone, who was a dark-skinned African-American whose songs were seen as anthems of the civil rights movement. in the 2016 movie Nina. Saldana had to wear dark makeup and a prosthetic to change the shape of her nose.
Tharps said the call for Williams to be played by a Don Cheadle or Idris Elba are missing larger points.
“Don’t they recognize they are operating from a colorist mindset?” she asked. “They’re saying, ‘Hey Don Cheadle, you should [only] play dark people. You are literally putting him in a colorist box, giving him the dark roles. And Idris Elba should be looking at playing 007 [in a Bond movie]. Why should he play only dark people?"
King Richard is being partly produced by Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment productions company.