The Straight Outta Compton Casting Call and the False Outrage over ColorismCherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Commentary I July 28th, 2014
The Sandi Alesse Agency recently released a casting call for the movie, Straight Outta Compton, an N.W.A. biopic, set for release next year; which is nothing short of sexist, racist, and brimming with calculated colorism. Although casting calls are meant to be specific, due to its keen focus on race and complexion, which includes detailed descriptions about the various constructed categories of women that they want to cast; the casting call reads like an antiquated caste system or eugenics scale.
Here is the original casting call text, which has since been removed from their website:
SAG OR NON UNION CASTING NOTICE FOR FEMALES-ALL ETHNICITIES- from the late 80's. Shoots on "Straight Outta Compton". Shoot date TBD. We are pulling photos for the director of featured extras. VERY IMPORTANT - You MUST live in the Los Angeles area (Orange County is fine too) to work on this show. DO NOT SUBMIT if you live out of the area. Nobody is going to be flying into LA to do extra work on this show - and don't tell me you are willing to fly in.
SAG OR NON UNION FEMALES - PLEASE SEE BELOW FOR SPECIFIC BREAKDOWN. DO NOT EMAIL IN FOR MORE THAN ONE CATEGORY:
A GIRLS: These are the hottest of the hottest. Models. MUST have real hair - no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies. You can be black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: A GIRLS
B GIRLS: These are fine girls, long natural hair, really nice bodies. Small waists, nice hips. You should be light-skinned. Beyonce is a prototype here. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: B GIRLS
C GIRLS: These are African American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: C GIRLS
D GIRLS: These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone. Character types. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: D GIRLS
Reinforced are the ideas of racial purity and superiority. In fact, beauty is defined in purely Eurocentric terms. African American girls are explicitly identified as "C" list, and of course that just includes medium to light skin girls, while dark skin is regulated to the "D" list.
We must not allow the irony that Oscar-Award winner Lupita N'yongo - arguably one of Hollywood's most acclaimed, sought after, and talked about actress of 2014, certainly an "A list" actress - would be defined as "D list" according to this scale. Lupita was also graced the cover of People's magazines "Most Beautiful" issue a mere three months ago. Yet, despite her cherub face, captivating and infectious smile, and extremely toned body (check those arms!), her ebony complexion would regulate her to the "D list". Phenotype traits, such as dark skin and coarse-kinky-curly-coily hair, are somehow synonymous with being poor, unattractive, and overweight. In other words, they are distinguishing traits of those who are deemed the "Undesirables", rather than the "Untouchables". Further, the use of a Alphabetic rating scale also helps to reinforce the idea that somehow the color of one's skin or texture of their hair makes them more beautiful, or more valuable to society. It is these very attitudes that make the disappearance of white women a cause for great public concern, with intense media coverage, while the disappearance of Black women hardly gets mentioned in the news. Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as Missing White Women Syndrome. Again, it is simply based on who is valued in society.
The casting call provides even more evidence as to how guilty Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general are at perpetuating and reinforcing harmful, racial stereotypes. Just how harmful can these stereotypes be? Well, there are many studies that have revealed how gender and racial stereotypes (both shown in this particular casting call) can affect personal and professional decisions , influence hiring decisions, and workplace dynamics. Therefore, stereotypes can have dire consequences and contribute to occupational segregation, in that they affect whether one is offered a job, given a competitive salary, is made to feel comfortable in the workplace, reducing their risk of stress-related chronic disease and premature mortality. Yes, it is that deep, because daily micro-aggressions and resultant stress has drastic and negative impacts on a person's health and well-being. In other words having to internalize and cope with this much blatant hate and prejudice may eventually take its toll.
As disgusting and appalling as this casting call was, and despite the damaging effects that these actions may have on Black girls and women, the outrage and shock over it can be called nothing more than false. The TRUTH-- The Black community and especially Black Hollywood and the entertainment industry have always had a disdain for Black women. Can we take a moment to note the fact that the actors cast to play the lead characters in this film actually resemble the characters that they are depicting? Unlike the casting where biracial women, light-skinned women, and those who have not previously self-identified as Black, were cast to play dark-skinned Black women; namely Nina Simone, Harriet Tubman, and even the animated character Shana from the 80s cartoon Jem. Truly, why all the surprise, shock, and fake outrage now, when -- so many have sat silently by while witnessing the erasure of Black women? The casting calls for those movies most likely resembled the one for Straight Outta Compton.
So, let's get back to this false outrage. Is it because it was in blatant black-and-white and straightforward terms? Is it because Black women were forced to realize that they are automatically assigned to the undesirable "C or D lists"?
More Truth -- This false outrage comes from having one's dirty laundry aired out, for all eyes to see. See, it is easy to deny and ignore a problem that is occurring inside one's own home or community, but when it "gets out" and is exposed to "others," it becomes shameful and embarrassing. This problem with color always existed in the African American community, folks just did not want it exposed, exploited, and discussed by "others." In fact, the casting call bares much similarity to the following notorious expression from the early 20th century:
If you're black, stay back
If you're brown, stick around
If you're yellow, you're mellow
If you're white, you're all right.
Again, a hierarchy based on skin color is established, and those who are deemed "Right" and make it to the "A" list are those who have the most Eurocentric features. This has always been the case in the African American community and Hollywood. Seriously, all that one has to do is look at the archived issues of popular Black magazines such as Ebony and Jet, or consider the starlets who were considered the most beautiful: Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey, Pam Grier, to Halle Berry. They were serious about the paper bag test. Apparently the "C list" and "D list" didn't really exist back then; with a few exceptions, such as Hattie McDaniel, who was the personification of the Mammy stereotype.
The only place where Black women "of a certain hue" were able feasibly make their mark in the entertainment industry was through music. Sadly enough artists who looked like Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Donna Summers, Lauryn Hill, Brandy, Monica, Mary J Blige, all of the members of En Vogue, SWV, and certainly Grace Jones would find it almost impossible to be offered a recording contract today. They did/do not have the required look. While an artist like Fantasia is often mocked for her appearance.
However, this was all before the ascension of the music video. With music videos, talent is no longer a requirement as images dominate. Thus, there has been a steady lightening effect of Black female musical artists.
Interestingly enough, the roster of R&B and pop starlets also mirrors the scale of the Straight Out Of Compton casting call and the focus has primarily been on the light skinned women who were fortunate enough to be placed in the "B list." They are being signed and promoted despite the fact that many have questionable vocals. Thus, the airwaves are filled with their music, and their images abound in magazines and social media; particularly within Black Hollywood. Those who have been approved by the Colorism Caste system include: Beyonce, Amerie, Christian Milan, Rhianna, Amerie, Keyshia Cole, Melanie Fiona, Cassie, Jordin Sparks, Jhene Aiko, and Alicia Keys. Speaking of Alicia Keys, who could forget what occurred at the Grammys in 2002, where India Arie was snubbed, losing five of seven categories to Alicia Keys, after much hype and fanfare went surrounded her debut album. Although being nominated for seven Grammys -- including best album, best record, best song, and best new artist -- India did not take home a single Grammy. While, Alicia Keys, won five out of the six categories that she was nominated for, including best new artist and best song. Although, both very talented, one cannot help but note the differences in circumstances. This incident also took place during an era where medium-dark skinned women began to disappear in music, especially when it came to hip hop.
Fast forward and the only mainstream female hip hop artist are Nikki Minaj, who is becoming noticeably lighter in complexion since her debut and in comparison to her earlier images, prior to be signing with Young Money Music; and Iggy Azalea, a White Australian rapper whose flows sound like they were borrowed from Da Brat's, circa 1994, South-side Chicago--by-way-of Atlanta flow. How is that possible? Two words: appropriation and gimmick. Now that we are on the topic of colorism in hip hop, let's have a look at some of the most telling lyrics and comments (which again mirrors what was stated in that casting call):
" But for real, for me, I feel like with the red lipstick thing it all depends on the pair of complexion. I'm just being for real. You have to be fair skinned to get away with that… what do dark skin girls have that you know fair skinned girls cant do… Purple lipstick? Naw, that looks stupid on all girls" A$AP Rocky
"Used to be black girls was the baddest s**t, you know what I mean? Spanish, J-Lo be poppin' … white women are poppin' right now, man. They f*****g poppin'. Imma just be real." -Wacka Flocka Flame
". . .beautiful Black woman, I bet you that bitch look better red"? Artist: Lil Wayne, Song Title: Every Girl
" She a red bone but her cousin is dark. A little out of shape but you'll f@#% in the dark" Artist: Lloyd: Song Title: Track Shoes
If you can stomach more and need a better understanding of how explicit colorism is in hip hop, read the article Adolf Hitler Was A Black Man: Hip Hop and Colorism. Still, a short documentary, Complexion Obsession, provides further insight about the obsession with and proliferation of light skinned, "exotic" women, and the overall lack of dark-skinned women in hip hop videos. So, back to my initial question -- why all of the shock and false outrage? Can anyone watch a music video, whether hip hop, r&b, or pop, and not notice that these artists are using the exact same standards in their videos that were put forth in that infamous casting call? Thus, why is it only now an issue?
Besides, we have dealt with this type of controversy before: Sean "Diddy" Combs Ciroc model casting call), which specifically requested White, Asian, Latina, or Light Skin Black women promos models, The cover of Pharrell's albumGirl, or even when Tyrese came under fire for stating that none of the Black women that showed up at a casting call for one of his videos looked good enough to be featured. Seriously, after all of this, why are some clutching their pearls, and speaking out about their disgust? Where have all of those who are so outraged been the past number of decades? And if you noticed this, why have you remain silent? Why would you continue to support these artists and movies? Why are some so quick to shut down honest, open, and desperately needed conversations regarding colorism when it remains a prevalent problem?
Also, do not for a minute believe that this problem is regulated to the movie and music industries. Marketing geared towards Black men, also adheres to this Colorism Caste system.
As you should be able to note. There are no women depicting on any of these covers who can be classified as "C list" or "D list".
Outside of the world of models, musicians, and fantasy women, the colorism caste system continues to dominate. A Study, " Shedding 'Light' on Marriage: The Influence of Skin Shade on Marriage for Black Females", published in 2008 found that light-skinned Black women are more likely to be married. Again, this is an issue of who is valued, and the Study supports this contention:
"We contend that the associated shortage of desirable men in the marriage market provides those black men who are sought after with the opportunity to attain a high status spouse, which has placed a premium on having light skin shade".
Despite all of the racism, sexism, and rampant colorism in the Straight Outta Compton casting call, many claimed there was not a problem with it and attempted to find reasons to justify it. Some of the arguments put forth were blatantly inaccurate, and that includes the following:
This is not racist at all. And I'm a Black man who was born and raised in Compton who works in Hollywood. You're making a movie about a very specific point in time where people looked a very specific way, how is that racist? That's the spectrum of what people look like who live in Compton, an inner city predominately Black and Hispanic environment. Are all the casting calls for the tons of period pieces Hollywood loves to churn out featuring the palest of white men and women that cast zero Black people and want the whitest blue eyed people they can find racist? No, because that's what the period looked like. So getting casting "right" on what can be deemed a more current "period piece" about the pioneers of gangster rap in 1980s Compton is far from racist
If the movie was truly a "period piece" and the casting agents wanted to get things "right," then they would have realized the women they identified as "C list" and "D list" were present during the 1980s and 1990s when N.W.A. began making music. These were the quintessential B-girls, the ones who rocked doorknocker earrings, dookie braids, and asymmetrical haircuts like Salt N' Pepa. This was a period when every hip-hop song did not have to make constant references and shout outs to "red bones," white girls, and so on. Black women of all skin tones were still allowed to have a presence and to equally share the spotlight like Tisha Campbell-Martin (Sidney) and A.J. Johnson (Sharane) in the cult classic House Party.
Now, just shortly after joining in the condemnation of Donald Sterling for racist remarks, Black women continue to be victimized by colorism. Even more telling is that we are still awaiting a response or a comment from the remaining members of NWA who are being depicted in this film. Even if they were initially unaware of what was sent out by the casting agency, once it become public knowledge, they should have taken the opportunity to address this issue. To show up for Black women, the same way that they want Black women to show up and support their film.