It’s rare when a documentary, particularly an African American one, sets off an avalanche of attention before the project is even released. Dark Girls has been an exception and for good reason. The film, still a work in progress, takes a look at the damaging affects of how far too many African-Americans uplift and desire Eurocentric standards of beauty at the expense of downgrading darker-hued women in their own race. This issue is rarely spoken about, but it has hit a nerve with people of all races. In fact, shortly after a preview for the documentary was uploaded on Vimeo, more than 2.1 million people either downloaded it or read about it in more than 150 countries. Slated for a Fall/Winter 2011 release, the film is directed and produced by Bill Duke (Duke Media) and D. Channsin Berry (Urban Winter Entertainment). It is co-produced/edited by Bradinn French and line produced by Cheryl L. Bedford. The independent project, set to premier in October at the International Black Film Festival in Nashville, is in need of funds to be completed. Duke and Berry’s goal is to raise $250,000 by July 31. They’ve raised, to date, slightly more than $4,700. Later they will work on the film, The Yellow Brick Road, which speaks to the issues surrounding women with light skin. Duke and Berry recently spoke to EBONY.com about it.
To see clips from the upcoming Dark Girls documentary, to make a contribution and/or post videos of your own testimony, visit: http://officialdarkgirlsmovie.com/
EBONY: The trailer of this documentary is absolutely powerful. It has really touched a nerve. Why do you believe that it has resonated with so many people?
Duke: Well, I believe that it is something that strikes a chord, because it’s unfortunately something that’s prevalent in our culture and it’s not spoken of. And the fact that we addressed it, I think people are responding to it because it needs to be addressed. But, people, like, you know, we are the last to speak of our pain. So I guess, we’ve been taught that from a early age. But to have a vehicle that allows us to do that, I think people feel and they’re responding.
EBONY: What types of feedback have you received thus far?
Berry: You know, we’ve got 99.9 percent feedback saying, “We cannot wait to see that film.” “ We cannot wait to see this film.” “We’ve been talking about this quietly among ourselves, but never had an open discussion about until now.” It seems that the whole world is talking about it. We’ve got over 800,000 hits in 31 days [for preview], which is, you know, extraordinary. We’re getting responses from not only the United States, but the U.K. and Canada. But the top five are, like, France and Germany and the Netherlands. Then, we have Jamaica and Africa chiming in. So, it’s something that touched the whole world and we’re very, very happy about that.
EBONY: The masses often make blanket statements and assumptions that people only want to be entertained and to have side-splitting laughter at movie theatres. Isn’t the response to this serious documentary a testament that people are hungry for something to enlighten and feed their soul?
Duke: I think people are starving for what we call edutainment. We can entertain people, but we can also be conscious of some of the needs of, not only our culture, but society overall. We don’t have all the answers. But we do know that there are issues that need to be addressed through media and we want to be able to, not only with this project, but with numerous projects that we’re developing now, to be able to address those needs. And I think there’s a hunger for it. We want to fulfill that hunger.
EBONY: How difficult was it to push a serious subject like this? It’s an independent project? Is that why you went this route?
Berry: No, we’ve been independent for awhile. Bill definitely has and I definitely have. We choose to do things that aim at the truth. I think that’s the whole thing that we’re into and have been into for awhile, but it’s really shining a light on things now. We’re both about dealing with the past and bringing it to people. And by doing these documentaries, this is the part of the process. It’s an honor, but it’s also painful at the same time. Because when you open up the truth to many people, the pain on our people, you have to deal with the image. So it’s like, basically we’re putting a mirror up to ourselves and saying, “Look at us. This is what we are. This is who we are.” And these are the things we need to fix to become better human beings. Not just better Black people, better Black men or better Black women, just better human beings on the planet.
EBONY: Would you agree that this movie shows how intercultural racism is just as devastating, if not more so, than racism from others?
Duke: Oh, there’s no doubt. I mean, you know, it’s like you’re saying, the sin of commission and omission. The sin of commission and omission are social in the sense that if I have a film or a piece of media and there’s a positive image or there’s something beautiful or something just wonderful, you’re not there. Whatever looks like you is omitted, you’re not there. But when there’s something that’s buffoonery or something that is laughable, you are there. See, then there’s the sin of commission which also starts with your family. I was a dark-skinned boy, of course, and I’m still a dark-skinned man. But our own families, you know, joking. Your uncle may say, “Come here, crybaby. Come here, nappy head.” They’re not trying to hurt you, but in terms on their sense of beauty, your little Black persona, that’s something to them that’s comical. And so if I ever said to my uncle if you ever said to uncle, “You’re hurting that young man by saying that,” he would say, “What are you talking about?” But, it’s no less a negative impact than someone calling you a nigger or someone saying you’re ugly.
EBONY: Would you say that the media definitely perpetuates self-hate by defining beauty as light-complexioned women with Eurocentric features? We don’t really see ourselves as beautiful and especially not women whose complexions are pretty much as you deal within the documentary.
Berry: I think that the media has a lot to say in how we think about ourselves and how we’re portrayed within other ways. It’s kind of easy to point at a magazine because we’re not there. We’re not held up to the standards of beauty that Caucasian women are help up to. When you look at these magazines or you look at Hollywood or the television or film industry, you see that these are things that our women don’t like. And Bill talks about this thing of issues of fashion and makeup and how these things change every season. It’s almost like the dangling carrot in front of a horse he keeps going for it and it’s pushed further and further and further away, but you’re spending more and more money dealing with trying to look like that particular image that’s presented to you and it’s devastating. It can be really devastating because the further and further you go into it, the further and further you can lose your identify. It’s an issue with us anyway having a lack of identity because when you think about it, we’re the only people who have undergone up to six different name changes. Every 40, 30, 50 years we go through a name change and I don’t know of anybody else who’s done that. I mean, Negro, then Black to Afro-American, African-American to colored. It’s tough enough trying to find our place. So these are probably some of the main reasons why we don’t know who we are and how we have a lack of identity.
Duke: Well, the irony is, and Chann’s right on it, we address this in the movie from a sociology point of view, a psychological point of view, socioeconomic point of view, all those points of view so that it’s not a pity party. We imagine it in a way that from statistical information that’s been gathered over years, from the moment we landed on this continent, what we have been through and who we are now is the result of that process. But the ironies of it are, and I was looking at the footage yesterday, is severalfold. Right now, in India, the largest selling cosmetic is skin bleach cream for Indian men, because Indian women want to marry successful men, and if your skin is darker in an Indian culture, it means you’re working the field because you’re exposed to the sun. If your skin is lighter, it means you work in an office because you’re pale. Another irony is that we went to a tanning salon and these two White females are sitting there and we’re asking them, “How often do people come in to get tans?” They say at least once a week and we say, “Well, why do White women come in here to get tans, to make their skin darker?” And the woman literally says, “Because it makes them feel better about themselves.” Is that ironic? Here we are getting lighter, and they’re trying to get darker. Is that insane?
EBONY: The film has been two years in the making, correct?
Duke: Yes, it’s taken awhile for us to really think through the vision of it and to gather the funds to do it. We’re still shooting and we’re on IndieGoGo trying to get finishing funds for the film. But it’s a very important question you asked previously about it being harder to get dollars for these kinds of projects. It’s almost impossible. That’s why we went into our own pockets and decided that this was something that had to be done. And so we’re investing our own dollars in it because we believe in it.
EBONY: How did you find the subjects for the movie?
Berry: Well, that was kind of easy. It’s what I call the friends and family plan. [he laughs] That was kind of easy because Bill and I, being who we are, knowing a lot of people and having a lot of friends who love us and we love them as much, it was easy. It was telephone calls away. Basically, we started off with friends and family. We started off here in L.A. with some friends and some students of Bill’s from his boot camp. We just asked questions and it was easy. As painful as it is, it was easy. Thank God that these women liked to talk and wanted to talk because they had something to get off their chests.
Duke: Then it evolved, though. It evolved into a larger community. Once people heard about it, they started called us and then we expanded the vision. Because we thought, in the beginning, that a lot of it was going to come from racist America, but colorism is something that’s internally bred within our own culture. So we went out to psychiatrist, psychologists, sociologists, historians. It includes a lot of Black men. We included White males, some whom are married to Black females to get their perspective. We’ve done quite a bit of research and also included a larger spectrum of people in the movie.
Berry: We have Asians, Asian women. We’re talking to Filipina women. We’re talking to Hispanic women. We’re talking to women from Panama, from Haiti, from Ethiopia, because they all have the same issues.
EBONY: OK. What is the common theme? You spoke to a wide variety of women. What’s the one thing that seemed to echo in all of them in their struggle, and in what they’ve dealt with because of their complexion?
Duke: Pain. When others hurt us, we act with anger or resentment and may even wish to kind of retaliate. But the actions will just prolong the pain. Holding on makes it even worse; holding onto the pain makes it even worse. And the self-degradation was a common theme, also. Once it was accepted that they were not attractive enough to meet standards, whether external standards of society or internal family standards, they all started to augment their ugliness, their self-perceived ugliness with weaves, wigs, extensions and make-up and skin lightening, whatever would makes them look like what was acceptable to the other family or society.
Berry: It was very painful. It’s very, very painful. I mean, Bill and I talk about the intercultural racism that occurs. If White folks walked away from us, we would still have this problem. If they projected nothing else on us, we would still have this problem about ourselves. And you know, as we think, so we become.
EBONY: It’s a difficult movie to watch. Were there any women who said, “I learned early to love myself, no matter what?”
Duke: Yes, there are a number of people we’re gathering who fought these demons and have overcome them and are successful and some are very powerful, yes. That is part of the movie. In addition, we really have some incredible people we have brought into the movie who are great advisors. They really talk about historical roots of this and how to begin to deal with it in a healing fashion. So, this is not just a pity party. We definitely present the problem, but we also present potential solutions if people are willing to do what’s necessary to be done to heal. We’re just filmmakers. Our responsibility, we feel, is to honestly, clearly and thoroughly create a discussion about something that’s well researched and then present possible solutions to the problem. But, we can’t make anybody do anything.
Berry: To add to what Bill just said, that film won’t eradicate the problem or, you know, lift the disease of self-esteem. Hopefully, it’s just to bring light or bring truth to an issue so people, so these women, can heal. It’s about saying to yourself that, as Bill says, “God said I’m good the way that I am, and I need to live in that, breathe in that, love in that.” That’s all it is.
EBONY: Is it going to be in theatre or is it going to hit select markets first?
Duke: Well, our hope is that it will be in some theaters around the country with a substantial release and that it will have a television presence. It will have a Netflix presence. It will have a DVD presence and it’s going to be hopefully supported by organizations like colleges, churches, sororities and fraternities. We’ve already been invited to work with Tom Burrell, who wrote a brilliant book called Brainwashed. Some of his colleagues are going to partner with us and we’re going to be touring different parts of the country and holding forums that are going to be addressing this. We’re doing a book, a coffee-table book, an album, and we hope to do a cell phone application also. We’re trying to put a nonprofit together through which part of the profits of this film will go toward organizations that are addressing this issue on an ongoing basis. In other words, we want this to be addressed long after we’re off this planet. We want this to be addressed from educational institutions to churches, whereever we can get the message in. We want it to be addressed in the future.
EBONY: Have you gotten push from people in the industry as well? Are any women in the industry, like actresses or singers, in the movie who speak of the difficulties that they’ve had, not only being females, but also women who don’t look a certain way?
Berry: We do have a superstar, who’s a friend of ours. She has come in and done interviews, and she’ll be a part of it, Viola Davis. The comedienne/actress Anna Maria Horsford speaks on part of it, too.
Duke: And just yesterday, the dark skinned [said] Vanessa Williams wanted to be a part of it. We have some other people with [famous] names coming on board, too.
EBONY: So will you do something later that addresses the woes of dark-skinned men?
Berry: That’s one of the reasons why we did it, because Bill and I had the issues when we were growing up. It was easy for us when Bill came up with the concept. We both had the same pains of growing up being dark-skinned men. We don’t have it to the level that women have it because there’s beauty, fashion and make-up attached to that. We, of course, being men don’t have that.
EBONY: What do you want people to take away?
Duke: There are a couple of things. One, that little girl who has her finger, that little dark, beautiful finger in that picture, when they say, “Who’s the dumb doll?,” and “Which is the ugly doll?,” she points to the doll the same color of her finger. We want to lift her finger from that picture. We want her to realize that not only are those other dolls beautiful, but so is she. The next thing we want people to understand and take away is that God does not make mistakes. You’re a child of God. You were created in the image you’re created and that there’s nothing wrong with you. If you choose to wear makeup, if you choose to wear extensions, if you choose whatever you want to do and that choice is based upon an aesthetic decision that you make, not based upon the fact that you’re less, but you just wanted to do that, that’s no problem with that. But changing because you’re not good enough, we’re trying to make people understand that they are good enough.
Berry: We want a healing for women, not just women of color, dark women. Because we believe all women are dark at some point at their lives, with some particular thing and we just want a healing. I’ll end it with this, Bill and I think this and believe this: Until women are healed, men cannot be healed. The two things that give us life are women and the earth, and we have destroyed damn-near both of them. The things that give us life we’ve damn-near destroyed. So until earth is healed, until women are healed, no one will be healed.
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Senior Editor, EBONY Magazine