It had to be the Latin movie of the year, if not of the decade. Last Friday it premiered In the Heights, the musical written by Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara María Hudes, spoken and sung in spanglishand conceived as a celebration of all Spanish speakers in the United States, and of a neighborhood in Manhattan, Washington Heights, “that was made of music,” as the trailer states. However, what is being talked about, in addition to some somewhat disappointing box office numbers (understandable, since the film also premiered on HBO Max), is the color of its protagonists, or rather, the lack of color.
On the same day that the film was released, journalist of Afro-Cuban origin Felice León, from the The Root, published an article denouncing that all the main actors and actresses are Latino with light skin and “that they can pass for white.” The only black Latinos appear in dance numbers, as accompaniment, or as extras with a couple of lines of dialogue. León asked the director of the film, Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and several interpreters and their answers did not help to silence the nascent controversy, on the contrary. “We hired the people who were best for the role,” Chu said, offering the same response that white producers have traditionally given to explain the lack of diversity in their casts and that, in a way, places the blame on the losers. “It is not our fault if they are not good enough,” he comes to say. “In the casting process, which was very long, there were many Afro-Latino people with darker skin, but they were looking for the right people for the role,” added Mexican actress Melissa Barrera, who plays Vanessa, a hairdresser who wants to go out. from the neighborhood.
The issue of colorism, a term attributed to the writer Alice Walker that describes the kind of concentric discrimination that occurs within non-white communities, and that makes things always more difficult the more melanin your skin has, is not new. in Hollywood. But it tends to focus on the African-American community. In 2016, there were protests over Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone in her biopic, when the singer had much darker skin. Saldana darkened her skin with makeup and used a prosthetic nose for the role. Again, critical voices were heard over the fact that in the franchise X-Men, the role of Storm, born in Kenya, falls to biracial actresses such as Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp.
Younger performers used to not avoiding this type of political debate, such as Zendaya and Zoe Kravitz, recognize that they have had advantages that they would not have enjoyed if they were not so light skinned. Matthew Knowles, the father and ex-manager of Beyoncé and Solange, has said on more than one occasion that his daughters, especially Beyoncé, were able, thanks to their appearance (in addition to their enormous talent), to overcome barriers in music in their early days. “There are 400 other girls with darker skin – he pointed out – who do not get to play on generalist radio stations, they are directly played only on black music and R’n’B”.
That there are actresses with darker skin, like Viola Davis or Lupita N’yongo, getting leading roles and awards, does not eliminate the problem. Davis, who never misses an opportunity to point out that she should have exactly the same status as Meryl Streep (and the same pay) in the movies, has spoken on several occasions about the extra problems her skin tone posed when she started in her life. career and how late the awards have come. “If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not considered sexy, you are not a woman,” she said in an interview, using a very widespread expression, the “brown paper bag test,” which has very roots. traumatic. When slavery was in force, there were plantation owners who gave privileges, such as working inside the house, and not outside, to light-skinned slaves (often the result of raping female slaves). To determine who stayed in and who got out, a brown paper bag was used. If their skin was lighter, they passed the test. If it was darker, they suspended it. When Oprah Winfrey asked N’Yongo if there was a problem with colorism in Hollywood, the first thing she missed was a sardonic “ha!” «The more dark-skinned actresses work the better. This also has to do with the changes that are taking place behind the scenes, ‘he added, referring to the need for more directors, screenwriters and casting directors of all pigments working in an industry that produces symbols that are exported to all the world.
In recent years, moreover, it has been found that colorism affects actresses much more significantly than actors. Idris Elba, Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega and the late Chadwick Boseman were able to carve out careers as leading men, the kind of lead actor around whom multi-million dollar projects are built, having very dark skin. While that prejudice Davis spoke of still weighs on them. A study from this year by the Geena Davis Institute – the actress from Thelma y Louise She has spent years promoting and financing an entity that produces very rigorous reports on inequalities in the industry – she concluded that almost 80% of the roles are played by Afro-descendant actresses with light or very light skin. And 57% wear hairstyles “that conform to European beauty standards, rather than natural black hair.” Another report, from the National Museum of African American History, explained that colorism in cinema is as old as cinema itself.
In the ninety-two thousand, when there was an explosion of sitcoms starring African Americans on television, it happened that the daughters, who almost always played the role of the sexy but innocent girl, whose sexuality terrifies the paterfamilias, were always skinny. clearer than the children. Denise Huxtable, the Cosbys’ eldest daughter, was played by Lisa Bonet, who has much lighter skin than the actor who played her brother Theo, Malcolm Jamal-Warner. In the spin-off from the series that was tailor-made by Lisa Bonet, A different worldAlso, almost all the actresses with important roles had light skin (Cree Summer, Jada Pinkett Smith), but not the actors. When Aunt Vivian was replaced, to the chagrin of almost all fans of The prince of Bel Air, It also involved changing a dark-skinned actress, Janet Hubert, for a lighter-skinned one, Daphne Reid, noted an article about this phenomenon in the magazine SisterMag.
It is not the first time that director Jon M. Chu, who was visibly uncomfortable answering questions on this question, has been embroiled in a controversy over colorism. His previous film, the super successful romantic comedy Crazy Rich AsiansOn the one hand it was received as a symbol of openness and that Asians could star in stories of love and luxury in the cinema without being relegated to secondary roles, but on the other it also generated some criticism, since all the interpreters are Asian skin clear. In Singapore, where the film takes place, 15% of the inhabitants are of Malaysian origin and almost 7% are Indian, but they do not appear at the film’s lavish parties or as extras.
Now it is another community, the Afro-Latino, who demands a voice in this debate. It is often pointed out that it is politically complicated, if not sterile, to speak of “Latinidad” since a Cuban from Miami has little to do with a Puerto Rican from New York (such as Lin Manuel Miranda) with a Mexican from California. “Latinos are much more than a story, a skin tone, an identity,” writes Cuban-born journalist Monica Castillo in the NPR. Castillo was moved In the Heights but regrets that the two casting directors, white, have been able to escape the lack of diversity.
The issue is far from settled, but for now Miranda has fulfilled the ritual of issuing a note of apology. “I started In the Heights because I did not see myself reflected and that is what I have sought in the last 20 years, that all of us see ourselves reflected, ”he says. “I see the discussion about the representation of Afro-Latinos in our film and it is clear that this community does not feel sufficiently represented, especially in the leading roles. I hear the pain and frustration about colorism (…). When trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we failed. So sorry. I am learning from your answers. Thanks for launching them; I listen to you ”.
For now, he already has the support of a Latin Hollywood legend, Rita Moreno. “It seems you can never get it right,” he said on the Stephen Colbert show. When she rolled West Side Story In 1962, she had to settle for the supporting role of friend, Anita. While the star, that of the Puerto Rican María, was left by Natalie Wood, born in Russia.