I’ve figured out what is irking my nerves the worst about this Jem movie: colorism is at play here, and any casting choices that cause us (here, I mean specifically Blacks) to question and or/defend shades of Blackness will make me feel some kind of way.
As a child, I felt empowered by seeing Shana, the Black Hologram, and I could easily imagine her as a hopeful projection of my future self — a smart, kind, kick-ass kind of woman with savvy style and rich talent. She had chocolate skin and a thick, coily Afro. Even at the young age of 8-10 when the show aired, I knew seeing a REAL darker-skinned woman portraying characters on TV and film was uncommon, and to see one on a cartoon or in toys geared for girls like me was almost unheard of. The Shana in the movie does NOT fit this profile, and though the actress IS Black (half-Black), it took a double-take and a bit of digging to ascertain that fact (the released production stills and trailer make it a bit difficult to tell on sight).
I turned up a few good think-pieces written by others who have noticed the lightening of Shana’s character. I’ve learned that the backlash about the casting has made the actress, Aurora Perrineau, feel the need to stand up and defend/prove her Blackness, as I surely would have done in her case. We’ve seen similar situations when Zendaya Coleman was originally cast as Aaliyah and when Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone. I have the utmost respect for these actresses, and I definitely respect the fact that in an industry where roles for women of color are comparatively limited, they have more factors to consider when choosing to accept or pass on a role. As Samantha Irby would say, “Bitches gotta eat.” However, they’re also put in the tricky position of having to defend their own skin when the movie machine seems to ignore the deeper implications of trading out for a more “European” look.
As Hollywood has a penchant for whitewashing characters of distinct ethnic appearance and background, it feels uncomfortable when we are forced, once again, to ask and to answer, “How Black is Black Enough?” Yes, all Black is beautiful, and all shades should be equally respected. The reality is that they are not, not even always within our own community. In these cases of portraying Black women with distinct skin tones and hair textures, these very attributes ARE necessary political statements in and of themselves. The skin tone and hair texture is part of the story even when it is not the focus of the story. Who wouldn’t throw a fit if were Halle Berry cast as Harriet Tubman and not Viola Davis? From a historical perspective, the darkness of Tubman’s skin frames a context around her narrative; a lighter skin tone would completely change how we viewed her through a historical lens and what we would know to be true of her life.
There are inherently different challenges presented by having different skin tones and hair textures, because unfortunately, assumptions are made about the person based on those appearances. Or approaching it from a different angle, someone may identify closely and feel a deep connection to a character/historical figure because of a particular appearance. For a casting decision to ignore the importance of skin tone in the narrative of a Black character (especially one of some historical/cultural import) is to disrespect and ignore the rich history of the person being portrayed and his/her symbolic representation of those who identify with the character.
Shana, this 80’s rocker girl cartoon character, is no Harriet Tubman, but she IS of historical importance from a pop culture standpoint. There were tall, leggy Black Barbies with butt-length silky hair. I had a “Cornsilk” Cabbage Patch Kid bone-straight hair that I could brush. Then there was Shana, with her kinky ‘fro and milk chocolate skin. And though I sat in the kitchen every two weeks to get my hair pressed straight, she was me. And I think I’m a little bit salty that I will not be able to take my 9-year-old to the theatre and whisper in her ear, “Look, Kaelyn — she has hair kinda like yours.” I do not see myself anymore, and for that, I am not happy.