ShakaRa Speaks On It: BLACK BEAUTY ON THE BIG SCREEN; The Spectre of Black Women in Hollywood

For The Britihs Blacklist 12.02.14:

Following her stunning performance in the now much talked about and celebrated film ’12 Years A Slave’ (2013), Lupita Nyong’o has fast become the new Hollywood ‘It Girl’. Her image has been the central feature of countless red carpets and magazine covers, all of which have flooded social media in an apparent celebration of her style, grace and the uniqueness with which she pulls off her left field fashion choices.

The sub-text for all of this comes with a hint of being thankful that finally Hollywood is shining a light on a dark-skinned, natural haired Black woman with distinctly Afrikan features. Given that historically Hollywood has been a notorious tool in the degradation the Afrikan aesthetic, such a sentiment is one that begs critique on the portrayal of Black Beauty and whether we are indeed making progress.


Somewhere in the 90’s, Halle Berry became the epitome of Black Beauty in Hollywood. This ideal seemed to be widely accepted by Black people on both sides of the Atlantic, from the posters that covered the walls of teenage boys to the cultural references that featured in popular Black sitcoms, films and dramas. Halle was the ultimate archetype by which Black Beauty was measured, finally becoming “universal” in 2003, when she topped the lists of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World”  and 2008 as Esquire magazine’s “Sexiest Woman Alive” .

Conversely, Whoopi Goldberg seemed to represent the epitome of ugliness. Her name could often be heard in the mouths of comedians as an archetype for what you did not want to look like. Even though her roles in films such as ‘The Color Purple’ (1985) solidified her as far more than a comedic actress, they also seemed to reinforce the idea that her image was simply unattractive and undesirable – especially to Black men.

Very few, Black Men and Women alike seemed incline to challenge this perception and thus, it became prevalent and pervasive. So it is therefore interesting that it was this very portrayal that inspired Lupita to consider a career as a thespian, as she told Dazed & Confused magazine:

“Whoopi Goldberg looked like me, she had hair like mine, she was dark like me….”

A revealing statement that says much about Nyong’o’s mentality. How many young Black teenage girls would have been inspired by the image of Whoopi as being reflective of themselves and their aspirations? This experience has certainly informed her perception of the position she now holds. In an interview with Yahoo! Omg Insider she stated:

“I know I am representing an underrepresented group of women, being dark skinned and having short natural hair, and I’m happy to be that for them,”


What is apparent however, is that Lupita’s image is under-represented not only in mainstream blockbusters, but also the most prominent Black Hollywood films. As evident in Eddie Murphy’s classic ‘Coming to America’ (1988) and Martin Lawrence’s acclaimed sitcom‘Martin’  (1992 – 1997) – light skinned sisters were often juxtaposed with darker skinned, seemingly less desirable and less refined/unladylike sisters. Suggesting that there was still some work to be done in shaking off the ‘Black ugly & uncouth’ ideals ingrained in us during Slavery and Colonialism.

Though today the dynamic may not be as blatant, remnants of it appear very present. Tyler Perry is perhaps the most prominent writer and director of black relationship films of our time. Still we do not often find dark skinned, natural haired women as prominent characters in his or any other ‘Black films’ – especially as the primary love interest. It is important to highlight the ‘love interest’, in that she is most often simultaneously the object of beauty. Consequently, Afri-Carib women on screen have been limited to a-certain-type-of-Black.

Since Halle, Jada Pinkett, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan and Gabrielle Union are among those who have straddled the line between Black Beauty Queen & Sex Symbol; Angela Basset seems to fall outside such judgment, far more lorded for her iconic acting than for her obvious beauty. The above represent the type(s) of Black women that have dominated the Black actress/love interest circuit since Black people featured in films – let us not forget the celebration of iconic African American actresses who went on to become beauty icons Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. Who during their hey days of the 1950s, 60s and beyond, were notably appreciated for their light skin and western appealing features.


The past few years have seen a few ‘unconventional’ examples of the Black female image impact Hollywood to varying degrees.‘Precious’ (2009) saw the rise of Mo’nique and Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe. The latter recently caused a storm over what many considered a red carpet no-no at the Golden Globe awards. The bubbly personality received a tornado of abuse, reinforcing the fact that her weight (possibly coupled with her complexion and features) disqualifies her being seen as beautiful. On top of which, many seem affronted by the fact that she can dare to be so“extrovert” and “bold”, as though confidence has a weight requirement.

Another example is Viola Davis, the long standing Broadway & screen actress who rose in notoriety after playing ‘Aibileen Clark’ in‘The Help’ (2011). Though she has not received Nyong’o-like level of celebration, Viola is also a dark skinned Black woman, with distinctively prominent Afrikan features, who now proudly rocks a short natural hair style.

Though these examples obviously do not fit into the certain-type-of-Black stereotype, there does appear to be a trend in the roles that broke these actresses. Each is the story of an abused, abusive, subservient and/or enslaved Afrikan woman; roles which have been historically associated with undesirability and ugliness. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with telling these stories. In fact these are stories that must be properly told, and the ability to portray them as expertly as these actresses have done is a credit no one should wish to take from them. However, with Hollywood and the Black film industry’s history, it would be wise to guard against the potential pigeon-holing that they may experience, by virtue of the image they project.


How much did the way they look qualify them for playing these roles? And by the same token, does this very image disqualify them from playing other roles? By asking these questions, we are able to fairly judge the validity of these qualifications and productively guide what we consider to be progress.

Filmmaker Spike Lee has spoken about his reluctance to star Halle Berry as a drug addict in the film ‘Jungle Fever’ (1991) because she was“Too beautiful”. Of course, Berry went on to play this role exceedingly well. The lesson provided by this example, speaks to the potential that Spike, Perry, Steve McQueen and many others can have in challenging common perceptions and standards of beauty by starring the under-represented images of Black women in roles that reflect beauty and desirability.

This is a challenge not only for Black professionals, but for us, their audiences. It challenges us to move beyond becoming passive viewers to actively engaged observers, conscious of the effect of the images that we are fed. It would be interesting to study the extent to which the images of black beauty prevalent on screen are also prevalent among general Black viewership – and to what degree our ideals of desirability and attractiveness are reflective of what the screen portrays.

We must also ask ourselves whether our celebration of Black Beauty should be defined by Hollywood. Though Lupita deserves all the appreciation she receives, we do a great disservice to ourselves if we only celebrate her beauty because Hollywood, as endorsed by Ralph Lauren and Armani, has given us permission to.


Discussion around images of beauty can be seen as vain and superficial, especially when placed in the context of the flashing lights of the entertainment industry. It is therefore important, that our acceptance and celebration of the spectrum that is Black Beauty is not reliant on Hollywood endorsement, or any endorsement other than our own in depth Love of self.

A people will always express how they see themselves through their art. As a Black male therefore, it is important for me to see images of Afrikan men embracing the likes of Lupita Nyong’o as part of the standard beauty among Afrikan women.

It’s not unnoticed that pictures of actor Jared Leto gazing into Lupita’s eyes are being touted around by hopefuls wishing to see a new Hollywood It Couple. Yet similar pictures of Lupita with African American actor Michael B Jordan (who is also recently enjoying Hollywood appreciation) have almost been ignored.

Is it because Black and White people alike sub-consciously don’t believe Lupita will, could or should date a fellow Afrikan?

It is important that young Black women are afforded a similar inspiration that Lupita received upon seeing Whoopi Goldberg.

It is important we get to the point at which such images of Black Beauty are not a strange exception to a rule that we did not write, but a standard, default reflection of the beauty that we see in ourselves and each other.


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