'Dark Girls' Does The Right Thing

When the trailer for Bill Duke’s colorism documentary Dark Girls hit the internets last spring, I distinctly remember wanting to kick somebody in the face and hide under the covers. Yes, I am what some describe as dark brown-skinned. I’ve been the object of “pretty for a dark skin girl” tomfoolery. I’ve been compared to Nefertiti, Queen Nzinga, Black Queen Mother Earth and, bizarrely, Erykah Badu. And I’ve played purse-holder and solo-dancer when rolling with homegirls who have lighter skin, more aquiline features and so-called good hair.

Still, those experiences didn’t trigger my violent reaction. What angered me was the paucity of dignity and analysis in the trailer. I wanted to see some sign of the historical, commercial and systemic forces that drive colorism. What I got was quivering lips and running eyeliner, tortured familiarity edited into a dramatic ish-show of sad, sad, sad. As writer Andrea Plaid noted on Racialicious, the preview played on the “pitiful, unloveable dusky Negress trope that can be emotionally exploitive for the participants and for the viewers” and “seemed to be a new spin on the ‘unattractive and unmarriable Black woman’ trope that’s been on the uptick for a minute.”

Long story short (ha!), I didn’t expect much from the feature. But I’m happy to report how wrong I was. At a recent screening at the world-famous Apollo Theater, hundreds of Black women, men, girls and boys clapped, gasped, laughed and did that “Umm hmm” thing we do at the appropriate moments—which means that the final cut provided us with a range of emotional material to react to. Dark Girls begins with a gorgeous montage of archival images, rooting the contemporary condition of colorism in the peculiar institution of slavery. Great start.

While the trailer featured woman after woman testifying about the myriad ways her family, friends and would-be suitors have torn her to bits, the well-rounded film includes pointed, desperately needed explanation by historians, psychologists, writers, community workers and other experts. In the film, Oscar-nominee Viola Davis talks about intra- and extra-racial colorism; comedian Michael Colyer somehow manages to make colorism funny; a confident teenage girl bristles at a school friend’s Facebook recklessness; and an unidentified Brooklyn brother talks about how he loves dark skinned women because he wants his kids to look like pharaohs—then admits, “I sound real ignorant right now.” Human touches like these give the dense, tragic material dimension.

To make a huge issue digestible, Duke and his partner D. Channsin Berry divided Dark Girls into distinct parts devoted to history, media, romantic relationships, family and friends and the $32 billion skin lightening industry. And while Dark Girls is centered in the States, it explores colorism in Thailand, Korea, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, The Dominican Republic and Cuba. In other words, it’s global. That’s an important point.

By pushing past the usual “Willie Lynch” conspiracy theorizing, the “see what we do to each other?” victim-blaming and the “cain’t get a man” wailing, Dark Girls becomes the film equivalent of finding $25 in the couch—a treat you didn’t know you had. If it comes to your town, go see it. You won’t be sorry.   

Akiba Solomon is an NABJ-Award winning writer, freelance journalist, editor and essayist from West Philadelphia. She writes about the intersection between gender and race for Colorlines and is the co-editor of Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts .