WASHINGTON WATCH: Dark Girls – New Documentary From Producer Bill Duke Tackles Colorism In The African-American Community

We often talk about racism and bigotry toward African-Americans in this country, but there is an ism within our communities that we shy away from, and that’s colorism.

For as long as African-Americans have lived in this country, there has been a separation — conscious or unconscious — between light-skinned and dark-skinned African-Americans. “Dark Girls” is a powerful documentary on this issue. And before we talk to producer Bill Duke, here’s a short preview showing just how early this prejudice begins.


We often talk about racism and bigotry toward African-Americans in this country, but there is an ism within our communities that we could shy – we shy away from, and that’s colorism.  For as long as we’ve lived in this country, there has been a separation – conscious or unconscious – between light-skinned and dark-skinned African-Americans.  “Dark Girls” is a powerful documentary on this issue.  And before we talk to producer Bill Duke, here’s a short preview showing just how early this prejudice begins.


FACILITATOR:  Show me the smart child.


FACILITATOR:  And why is she the smart child?

CHILD:  ’Cause she is White.

FACILITATOR:  Okay.  Show me the dumb child.


FACILITATOR:  And why is she the dumb child?

CHILD:  Because she Black.

FACILITATOR:  Well, show me the ugly child.


FACILITATOR:  And why is she the ugly child?

CHILD:  ’Cause she Black.

FACILITATOR:  Show me the good-looking child.


FACILITATOR:  And why is she the good-looking child?

CHILD:  ’Cause she light-skinned-ed.

DARK-SKINNED WOMAN:  A friend of mine – [fighting back tears] – had recently had a baby, and so, you know, it was my first time seeing the baby; and the baby was beautiful.  And she said, “Girl, I’m so glad she didn’t come out dark!”


MR. MARTIN:  Joining me now to talk about the documentary and some of the issues covered in it are producer-directors Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry.  And Sophia Nelson is back.  She’s the author of Black Woman Redefined.

Well, folks, welcome to “Washington Watch.”

MR. BILL DUKE:  Thank you –

MR. D. CHANNSIN BERRY:  [Crosstalk.]

MR. DUKE:  — so much for having us.

MR. MARTIN:  What’s interesting is – you talk about this documentary, but just in the past week or so, you saw the ad come out for Beyoncé’s new album, and what has been the conversation?  How, in this ad, she literally looks White.  And this is the second time that’s come up – the question of change – a photographer changing it to make her appear to be more White.  [It] looked like she [had] blonde hair in this ad, in a[n] ad to promote her own album.  What does – what does that say to you about how pervasive this is – not just in terms of somebody Black trying to appeal to Whites, but even within our own community?

MR. DUKE:  Well, unfortunately, I think we’ve accepted values that set standards of beauty that are not us.  And as a result of that, as you saw the small child, unfortunately, at a very, very, very young age, whatever they look like is not beautiful enough.  And so they try to be something other, and we sell them products to do that, and I think whoever’s selling that ad thinks in the same way, unfortunately.

MR. MARTIN:  W- — when you see, or when you hear folks talk about “Black power” and “Black is beautiful” and all of those affirmations; and, yet, you still see, in 2012, this still exists, what was it like for you to sit there and listen to the stories and see the kids point those different things out as you were directing this?

MR. BERRY:  You know what, Roland?  It was painful, but familiar – familiar in the sense that Bill grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York.  I grew up in East Orange, Maplewood, New Jersey, and as little boys who happened to be dark-skinned, there were issues that we had in terms of people talking about how dark we are:  “Look at how dark they are.”  And then from my point – is that I had people in my family who were whispering in another room, and I overheard that at eight or nine years old.  So, I came up damaged.  And after hearing that, you know, there were some choices I made in my life that were not so go- — you know, not great choices because of that s- — lack of self-esteem.

So, it goes back to self- — the lack of self-esteem – with women and men, as – but it’s worse for women than it is for men, because dark men seem to be in vogue now.

MR. DUKE:  For the –

MS. NELSON:  Roland, you –

MR. DUKE:  — moment.

MS. NELSON:  — know, what these two good gentlemen are talking about is the power of definition and stereotypes in our culture with regard to Black people not only outside of our community, but within our own community; and it’s deeply rooted in slavery, as I talk about in my book.  There’s a context to all this.  We just didn’t end up this way.  And the definitions of the young girls that you saw – the young girl there – goes back to the Kenneth and Mamie Clark studies, Brown versus Board of Education, with the dolls.  And – and, yet, Kimmie Davis did it again for HBO in 2007, and I guess this is a new study that you-all have done, and we keep seeing it show up that our darker-skinned children believe that lighter is better.  And then we talked about the Beyoncé ad.  That’s crossover appeal.  Beyoncé wants to cross over to the broadest possible audience.  Don’t ask me why she feels a need to lighten herself.  She’s already light!

MR. MARTIN:  Right.

MS. NELSON:  And so it’s – it’s – it’s so ingrained into us.  We’ve been defined in such a way that white is better, that black is evil.  If you look up “white” and “black” in the dictionary, Roland, you’ll see very interesting –

MR. MARTIN:  Of course!

MS. NELSON:  — descriptions of what those words mean.

MR. MARTIN:  I’m reading Harry Belafonte’s book – his memoir, My Song, and I’m at the portion where he talks about what he dealt with, because not just in – here in the United States.  [The] same thing happened in his home country of Jamaica.  Sidney Poitier had to deal with it as well.

And so you focused on – you could have focused on this in terms of men and women, but why specifically women?

MR. DUKE:  Because I think women are the main brunt of this issue.  I think that their skin color is a major thing in terms of, unfortunately, what men choose in terms of beauty.  If you don’t have a s- —

MR. MARTIN:  “Light is bright.  She’s all right.”

MR. DUKE:  — in – in our film, we have a young man saying he does not think a dark-skinned girl looks right on his arm.  He says that in the camera.  He says long hair, fair skin – he feels better with that person on his arm.


MR. DUKE:  And so that exists today.  And as you saw, that young girl – she’s, like, five or six years old.  We are – we’re – we’re getting that message very, very early, so it’s an uphill climb from a very early age.

MR. MARTIN:  What do you want to happen after folks see this film?

MR. BERRY:  I want to continue what has happened six months ago when we dropped the trailer on everybody – to know that – to recognize that there is an issue with us, and then start the healing process.  If you recognize that you have an issue, and then open up about it and start talking about it, that’s when the healing begins.

So with our film – we’re not psychiatrists, or psychologists, or sociologists, Roland.  We’re just filmmakers who decided to point a lens at this particular subject, this issue, to say, “Listen.  This is how we can fix this, possibly.  Just open up and talk about it,” because, as Bill says, you’re not going to find anything outside of yourself to heal this.  It’s going to come from within.

MR. MARTIN:  So, if folks want to see it, have the documentary come to their city, where do they go?  What website they can reach out to you guys to say, “Hey, [we’d] love to have it in our city”?

MR. BERRY:  Officialdarkgirlsmovie.com.  Officialdarkgirlsmovie.com.

MR. MARTIN:  I thank you so very much and look forward to it.

MR. DUKE:  Thanks for having –

MR. BERRY:  [Crosstalk] –

MR. DUKE:  — us on.

MR. MARTIN:  All right.  Always a pleasure.

MR. BERRY:  — thank you so much.

MR. MARTIN:  Folks, I need you to review a performance, though – okay?  So, I know you – you’re artists, and you guys are used to –

MS. NELSON:  [Chuckles.]

MR. MARTIN:  — judging people.  So, let’s say you were casting a new film –

MR. DUKE:  Okay.

MR. MARTIN:  — and you need somebody who can sing a part in your film.  And so put on your director, your producer hat and please judge this contestant.



PRES. BARACK OBAMA:  — Rev. Al Green was here.


PRES. OBAMA:  [Singing.]  I-I-I’m so-o-o in love with you.



MR. BERRY:  What?

MR. MARTIN:  [Laughs.]


MR. MARTIN:  So, that was y’all’s first time seein’ this.

MR. DUKE:  I’ve never –

MR. BERRY:  I’ve never seen this –

MR. DUKE:  — seen this!

MR. BERRY:  — before.

MR. MARTIN:  That – that was from –

MS. NELSON:  It went viral –

MR. MARTIN:  — Thursday night.

MS. NELSON:  — last night.

MR. MARTIN:  He was in the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

MR. DUKE:  I’ll hire him.


MS. NELSON:  You gotta love –

MR. BERRY:  We’ve gotta sign –

MS. NELSON:  — that man.

MR. BERRY:  — that boy up!


MR. DUKE:  He got a future.  He’s got a –

MR. MARTIN:  You go- —

MR. DUKE:  — future.

MR. MARTIN:  — got a – got a future.

MR. DUKE:  He’s got a future.

MR. BERRY:  He’s got a future.

MR. MARTIN:  Also, folks, the President – he flipped the script on actress Betty White at her 90th birthday bash, and so he’s – look.  He’s doing everything.  He’s singing.  He’s talking to Betty White.


MR. MARTIN:  As – he’s making everything happen.