Photo credit: Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for BET
I don’t want to write this negative article about Lena Waithe, but here we are.
Waithe has been in some trouble as of late. If you’ve read her recent New York Times interview, she made a lot of fans mad by invoking the names of Denzel Washington and Will Smith in her takedown of Black Hollywood failing to support up-and-coming directors. To quote her:
“Don’t get me started on black financiers! How many of those do we have? I’m not [going to name] names because I know better, there are some very big black movie stars out there, and they could pay for two or three or even five small independent movies to get made by black directors and black writers. Let me give you two movies that are very important to the black community: Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave. Whose production company put those out? [The answer: Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company.] Wasn’t Denzel. Wasn’t Will Smith. You won’t catch me making $20 million a movie and not paying for at least four or five independent movies a year. I do give credit to Ava [DuVernay] for trying to build something that hasn’t been built before, but that’s a lot on Ava’s back.”New York Times
I, like a lot of people, wasn’t particularly down with this verbiage since it unnecessarily dragged two stars who actually do support Black Hollywood into a broader conversation about Black Hollywood as a whole. Personally, I also wasn’t particularly down with Waithe’s assertion that her words were taken out of context.
Quick sidebar: as a person in the entertainment journalism industry, let me say one thing: it’s one thing if her statements were put in a clearly falsified tabloid like The Sun or the National Enquirer. It’d also be something different if the interview was completely different tonally than what the headline states. But what she said, which read as her coming for Denzel Washington and Will Smith, is basically what was said in the headline on IndieWire, which reads as “Lena Waithe Calls Out Will Smith and Denzel Washington for Not Financing Films With Black Talent.” TELL ME what was misleading about that headline, when everything she said in that interview was antagonistic against the old guard like Washington and Smith? This classic statement celebs say about an outlet misquoting them or misleading the public is one of the tried-and-true ways celebs try to put all the blame for what they said on the outlet instead of just taking the L and learning from their mistake.
Anyway, she also further explained herself during According to her explanation during at the BET Experience Genius Talks panel moderated by Jemele Hill (another person whose “wokeness” is growing tiring as of late). To quote Waithe:
“Look, Will, Denzel, I have a relationship with both camps, no shade, no tea, I was just texting with Jada–everybody’s fine…But ultimately I’m saying for anybody who has money [and is] black, I think should be held to finance at least one or two black filmmakers trying to make their first film. I just think it’s important because then what will happen is we’re keeping the well within our community…I know that it is difficult to walk into a room of white financiers trying to explain why this particular black story should be told.”The Root
Okay. Sure. Let’s say I believe Waithe’s assertion that her words were blown out of proportion. But now another scandal has started: the casting call for Waithe’s latest film project, Queen and Slim, has come back to light and people are angry. With good reason: the description in this casting call is wildly inappropriate.
I learned about the casting call by happenstance. I was looking in the comments of a Twitter post lambasting Waithe’s two cents in the Kamala Harris “is she really Black” debacle of discourse.
Granted, Waithe equating Blackness to going to Howard is annoying, but I didn’t expect to see in the comments a reference to this casting call, which just made me irritated two-fold. First, I was annoyed that Waithe was going to have to live down yet another blemish on her record—she already has to deal with the fact that she failed to stop harassment on her set of The Chi, particularly after sounding so forceful about harassment on set in earlier interviews regarding the effect of #MeToo in Hollywood. Second, I was annoyed that, as a pop culture critic, I knew I’d have to write about this. I mean, technically, I could choose to ignore this since I run my own website and can write what I want. But I knew my journalistic nose for a story wouldn’t let me ignore this. I needed to write about this, which meant I’d need to write about Waithe, someone I have a lot of respect for overall, despite all of the mess regarding The Chi and her Black Hollywood comments. SIGH.
So let’s get into it. What was frustrating about the casting call? Here it is, verbatim from Backstage.com.
“born in the south to American parents, American grandparents and American great-grandparents, moved to the east coast as soon as she could. Queen is a fiercely intelligent defense attorney who reaches out to Slim on Tinder after the State decides to execute one of her clients—she didn’t want to be alone that night. She’s brown-skinned, if she were a slave she would’ve worked in the fields, she has a tough exterior for a reason. Only a few in this world know why. But she knows and that’s all that matters. Some nudity (breasts & butt) and sexual simulation required.”Backstage.com
Let’s dissect this. First of all, I’m get really annoyed when folks have this perception of the south being some awful place where a Black person—or any person, for that matter–can’t live a full life. Maybe I’m reading too much into the first sentence, but the phrase that Queen “moved to the east coast as soon as she could” just gives me a subliminal message of “because there’s nothing in the south that could possibly give her the life she wanted.” Granted, there are certain careers that require you to move. I should know; I’m a film and TV critic living in a city with no movie critic culture whatsoever. But to that point, here I am, working at several nationally-read publications, all while still living in my town that’s struggling to get their movie industry together. So let’s stop the projection of there being nothing for no one in the south. Again, maybe I’m reading too much into the first statement, but it just strikes me as sly northern propaganda. There’s a lot still wrong about the south, clearly, but we don’t live in the Stone Age, for goodness’ sake.
Second of all, is that bit of character information even necessary for the casting call? The jist of the casting call should have been “Dark-skinned Black woman, aged 25-30, knows how to project a cool and confident attitude for an independent film with an art-house vibe. Some nudity and sexual simulation required.” There you go. Maybe some of the background info was to help the actress get into character. But if the character description had stuck to only the necessary information, then maybe we wouldn’t have gotten a cringeworthy sentence such as “She’s brown-skinned, if she were a slave she would’ve worked in the fields, she has a tough exterior for a reason.”
WHY is this a necessary sentence for this casting call? Is this sentence trying to be edgy? Is it trying to be woke? Because it’s neither. Its just a problem.
Now, if you know anything about African American sayings, then you’ll know that it’s a running statement within African American culture about how darker skinned slaves worked in the fields and the lighter skinned ones worked in the plantation house. The assumption that goes into this statement is that the lighter skinned slaves had better lives than the ones who worked in the fields. They were considered more fragile and by extension weaker than the darker-skinned ones, who were often dehumanized because of their skintone. But let’s unpack the actual history of the horrors that propped up colorism.
Trudier Harris, a J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of English, Emerita at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote an article for the National Humanities Center’s TeacherServe site called “Pigmentocracy.” In the article, she talked about the colorism divide between lighter-skinned slaves and darker-skinned slaves.
“During slavery, black people who were fathered by their white masters often gained privileges based on their lighter coloring. Indeed, one reported pattern is that blacks of lighter skin were reputedly selected to work in the Big Houses of plantation masters while blacks of darker hues were routinely sent to the fields. Moreover, one of the origins of the Dozens, the ritual game of insult in African American culture, is reputed to have developed as a result of slurs darker skinned blacks who worked in the fields hurled at lighter skinned blacks because their mothers had given birth to children sired by white masters. Some masters who recognized their paternity publicly sometimes sent their partially colored offspring to the North to be educated. This practice explains in part the belief that blacks of lighter skin were more intelligent (they simply had more educational opportunities). It was convenient to the mythology of slavery to suggest this pattern as well, for even without formal admission, whites were aware that some blacks looked more like them than others. Since many theories of bestiality and dehumanization were aligned with darker skinned blacks, it was perhaps preferable to be more tolerant of the lighter skinned ones. Even this, however, was not a consistent pattern, for theories also developed about mongrelization, that is, the mixing of black and white blood, leading to extreme anti-social behavior in persons so endowed.”TeacherServe
We can go into how the light-skin/dark-skin divide created stereotypes for both skintones, but let’s keep it on topic. My point with this article is that invoking colorism within casting Queen and Slim dredges up a lot of horrible history, history that I’m surprised whoever is behind this casting call isn’t more sensitive to the subject.
It’s offensive to me that Queen would be described as “tough” and essentially a field slave just because she is of a darker hue. Darker-skinned Black women have had to endure decades of stereotypes regarding their skin, with the basis of those stereotypes rooted in slavery-era commentary. Lighter-skinned people as a whole were seen as closer to whiteness, so by extension, they were seen as more intelligent and more “human” than darker-skinned Black people. For lighter-skinned women in particular, they were seen as more beautiful simply because they had more Eurocentric features. On the flip side, darker-skinned Black women with more Afrocentric features were unfairly seen as ugly, manly, and more animalistic. Along with seeming more masculine and, indeed, “tough,” darker-skinned women are also desexualized; take a look at the mammy stereotype; mammy characters in the media were often depicted as darker-skinned, overweight, desexualized objects whose only purpose was to take care of white children.
Now, when it comes to light skin stereotypes, the statement about being “tough” also disregards what lighter skinned slaves went through. Regardless of the possible advantages lighter-skinned Black people might have had within white supremacy, they were still considered as Black and as unworthy as their darker-skinned counterparts. It might have seemed like they were getting treated better as house slaves, but being in the house was probably the worst place to be.
As one Quora answer states:
“Many lightskinned black people were believed to be biracial, so when the mistress would come outside and saw a lighter black kid, she would assume that her husband slept with one of the slaves. This often led to the woman to abuse the kid more, and sometimes even stab them.
When it came to biracial kids in slavery it was a little harder. Back in the 1800s it was illegal for a white masters to sleep with their slaves in order to make new ones. So to prevent from getting caught, they often kept the biracial slaves in the house. The sad thing was that the mistress often abused the biracial kids, more than the outdoor slaves who only got whipped if they disobeyed or slowed down their work. And since it was customary that the servants had to dress well and look well, to represent how wealthy the household was, the indoor slaves often got beaten anywhere on their body except for their face, and other visible parts.
This led the outdoor slaves to believe that the biracial and light skinned slaves were getting better treatment than the outdoor slaves. But in reality, they had it just as hard. The only benefit was being able to eat the leftovers on the master’s plate, while the outdoor slaves had to grow their own food.”Quora
This is backed up by this passage, in which a thirteen-year-old house servant girl is sexual assaulted by the master. But instead of the master getting in trouble, the girl is beaten by the mistress.
“Maria was a thirteen-year-old house servant. One day, receiving no response to her call, the mistress began searching the house for her. Finally, she opened the parlor door, and there was the child with her master. The master ran out of the room, mounted his horse and rode off to escape, ‘though well he knew that [his wife’s] full fury would fall upon the young head of his victim.’ The mistress beat the child and locked her up in a smokehouse. For two weeks the girl was constantly whipped. Some of the elderly servants attempted to plead with the mistress on Maria’s behalf, and even hinted that ‘it was mass’r that was to blame.’ The mistress’s reply was typical: ‘She’ll know better in the future. After I’ve done with her, she’ll never do the like again, through ignorance'” (Stanley Felstein, Once a Slave: The Slaves’ View of Slavery, p.132).”bowdoin.edu
As if things couldn’t get worse, Thirteen.org writes that owners would sell their lighter-skinned slaves into sex work. “Owners could reap large returns by selling pretty girls, especially light-skinned ones, into prostitution or concubinage,” according to the site. Thirteen doesn’t state if the lighter-skinned slaves who were sold as prostitutes were ever the offspring of the slave owners themselves, but I wouldn’t put it past some owners to be that heinous, particularly since slave owners raped their female slaves. In short, lighter-skinned women didn’t have it any better ton the plantation than their darker-skinned counterparts.
So, with all of that said, let’s get back to my core issue. With Queen being our main character and our main love interest in the film, why is she being characterized as “tough” and a “slave in the fields”? What does any of this have to do with her emotional toughness, which seems to be a key part of her characterization and, most importantly, completely separate from her outward appearance? Why couldn’t she simply be described as a beautiful woman who has had an intense past that informs her currently chaotic present?
This brings me to my original question in this article’s headline: Who wrote this casting call description?
Was it Waithe? It would be supremely saddening if it was. But she definitely could be the one behind these words; she is the writer and producer of this film, after all. She is one of the few people who knew the most about these characters before anyone was cast.
Or, does Waithe share the blame with Queen and Slim director Melina Matsoukas? Matouskas is also a producer in this film along with serving as the director. As a higher-up with Waithe, it makes sense that they would probably be in the casting room when looking for actors, so did she help write this casting call?
We will probably never know how many people worked on this casting call. When writing about problematic casting call descriptions in 2012, Slate’s Nina Shen Rastogi utilized info from Princeton professor Brian Herrera, who is writing a scholarly history of casting.
“[Herrera] points out that there are so many factors that go into any casting decision—who you can afford, who’s available, who looks good next to that other person you’ve already hired—that it can be hard to pin down exactly how Hollywood gets from Point A (a script) to Point B (the people flickering on your screen), especially when so much of the decision-making happens behind closed doors. But in a breakdown, the filmmakers’ and producers’ initial wishes for the role are on display—and put into words. What can these documents tell us about the state of on-screen diversity and the way writers, casting directors, agents, and actors think about race?”Slate
Apparently, as we’ve already read, a lot. And it makes me nervous as to what this might say about Waithe (and/or Matsoukas’) beliefs about skintone and colorism. What’s probably the most annoying part of this is that if Waithe and/or Matsoukas wrote this casting call, they probably thought they were writing this from an educated, woke perspective. They probably thought they were speaking to the truth of the Black experience. But what descriptors like calling someone a tough field slave actually do is reinforce the ideas people already have about lighter and darker-skinned women. It does no one any favors, and if they both had a hand in this casting call, you’d think they—a darker-skinned and lighter-skinned duo of women—would know how harmful those kind of descriptions can be.
Maybe they also don’t expect these kinds of casting calls to come to light, but it’s not the first time problematic casting calls have caught the attention of the pop culture-astute public. But whether or not this would have been seen by us laypeople, you’d think someone would have thought twice about describing their leading female character in this fashion.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:
|* How do you conceptualize darker skin and lighter skin in your everyday life?|
* Has colorism affected how you think about yourself? How?
* What positive steps can you do to start destabilizing colorism in your life?
This piece will update if Waithe comments on the casting call description.