Two weeks ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s big-screen adaptation of the beloved musical In The Heights hit the big screen. More expected a box office hit, but the film’s opening weekend only brought in a measly $11.4 million as stated by the LA Times. However, other than low box office success, approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes have reached 96 percent from critics and 94 percent from audiences.
But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a columnist on The Hollywood Reporter, writes a compelling article detailing the concerns of the lack of darker-skinned representation in In The Heights, an issue that has been prevalent in Hollywood for years. Abdul-Jabbar is a former professional basketball player and Hall of Famer who identifies as a black man, and he raises issues that many audiences of marginalized communities resonate with themselves. He eloquently states, “When we consistently cast lighter-skinned performers, we’re telling everyone that lighter skin is better, more valuable to our society.”
Let’s look at the history of Hollywood’s tendency to cast lighter-skinned individuals and why that is the case. Evidently, it seems to be not just media-based, but culturally influenced all across the world on the issue of colorism. Abdul-Jabbar reflects on the darkening of O.J. Simpson’s mugshot on Time to symbolize the “Dangerous Black Man Hiding in White Suburbia’s Bushes,” an on-screen stereotype translating from social prejudices.
Similarly, an article on Medium written by Magda Erockfor Ayur details the stereotyping of the dark-skinned woman over the age of 40 as the typical outspoken Mammy figure on-screen. Last summer during the Black Lives Matter movement, The Help rose to #1 on Netflix. Ayur asks, “What exactly did the movie teach viewers about Black women?”
Stereotyping and type-casting seem to explain why lighter-skinned actors are often given lead roles in featured works. Bridgerton was a show that held #1 on Netflix for a while too, but Ayur again states how a character like the darker-skinned Will Mondrich is depicted as an abnormally strong athlete, immune to pain as he pummels the Duke, the lighter-skinned lead of the show.
Hollywood seems adept to stick to these stereotypes; why?
Just as the lack of dark-skinned representation in Western media, the dangers of pushing for lighter-skinned faces to represent a large population of people who have a vast shade range is prevalent in global media, not just in film. Abdul-Jabbar touches upon the multi-billion industry of lightening skin products and treatments in Asian countries like India and China.
An Interaksyon article by Catalina Ricci S. Madarang highlights a study in the Philippines called “Filipino Women and the Idealization of White Beauty in Films, Magazines, and Online” that discusses how the Western “light skin” beauty appears to be the “global standard” in films, TV shows, and other forms of media. When we see works like In The Heights appear on the big screen with lighter-skin actors in the lead and darker-skin actors as stock characters, stereotyped or one-dimensional or even lurking in the background, popular media seems to be portraying a narrative that has remained stagnant for a while now.
Abdul-Jabbar pushes for the embracing of all shades of skin on the big screen, whose lives and voices matter. Ayur also wants more dialogue and influence in Hollywood for darker-skinned representation. Jon M. Chu speaks out by saying that he should have been more educated on representing more Black Latino actors for In The Heights. Abdul-Jabbar asks, “Why would someone personally familiar with racial discrimination need to be educated about it? And why did that ‘education’ not translate into more Black Latino actors in his movie?”
In The Heights was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda to give voice to Latin people, their histories, and their dreams. However, when audiences across cultures constantly see the limited representation of their people on-screen, what does that say about progress even in this modern era?
Hollywood and Western media have come a long way, but globally, it resonates with many that there is a long road ahead to give voice to all shades, all colors, and all skins in the world.