Biracial Celebrities: Why Hollywood Prefers Light-Skinned Black Actresses In Film's Like 'Mission Impossible'

CINEMA'S RELATIONSHIP with race remains fixed in the past, as Hollywood favours light-skinned black female actresses over their darker counterparts in both lead and support roles. By Ben Arogundade. [May.26.2016]


IN 1957 BIRACIAL ACTRESS Dorothy Dandridge starred in a romantic role opposite white actor John Justin in the film, Island In The Sun. Although physically the couple did little more than embrace on camera, and didn’t even kiss, the film caused a storm of protest across the country, as it was Hollywood’s first ever depiction of an interracial relationship. Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, who also starred in the movie, formed another mixed race couple in the drama set on a fictitious Caribbean island during the era of British colonial rule. Key scenes of intimacy between both sets of black and white actors — which included kissing — were cut from the final edit, while Fontaine and Belafonte received hate mail during filming.

Less than 50 years later, by contrast, there was hardly any reaction when Tom Cruise kissed Thandie Newton in Mission Impossible II (2000). Despite this, the light-skinned biracial actress who played Cruise’s love interest — jewel thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall in the $100m blockbuster — is one of only a handful of women of color to have starred in a Hollywood interracial romance since 1957, in an industry still stratified by race. The infrequency of onscreen interracial relationships seems not only strange, but increasingly old fashioned in a country that demographically is increasingly mixed, and has a president who is biracial.

Another talented light-skinned, biracial actress, Paula Patton, ex-wife of music star Robin Thicke, superceded Newton in Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol. Playing agent Jane Carter, she too had a relationship with a white co-star, although it didn’t last long. In Patton’s view, Hollywood is gradually changing its attitudes to race. “I’ve found that many of the big movies do not make race an issue in their casting,” she says. “Hollywood knows that you can’t do all these white films anymore — diversity is more interesting.”

But in reality, when interracial movie couplings do occur, as in the Mission Impossible movie series, the rules as to the type of black women actors cast are very strict, and have remained unchanged for a century. Candidates have to be lighter-skinned and straighter haired, thereby presenting less of an aesthetic contrast for close-ups with their white co-stars. The traditional thinking is that film-goers are more willing to accept a black love interest who “blends” — who tonally looks more European than African, or, as it has been put many times, “looks like a white woman with a suntan.” Biracial actresses such as Paula Patton, Thandie Newton or Halle Berry are often held up as examples of Hollywood's bias, despite the fact that it is the industry, and not the actresses themselves, who should be the subject of scrutiny.

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, the movie industry's bias for light-skinned biracial celebrity actresses leaves talent such as Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o — who has dark skin and short Afro hair — out of running for these roles. The Bollywood film industry has the same issue, with light-skinned Indian actresses being promoted ahead of their darker counterparts. Will there ever be a time when things will be fairer in film?

Ben Arogundade's book, 'Black Beauty', is out now.

BIAS FOR BIRACIAL CELEBRITIES : African American star Paula Patton (left) and British actress Thandie Newton have both starred in the 'Mission Impossible' movie series. When casting black leads, Hollywood has traditionally expressed a preference for light-skinned women actresses, especially when appearing in romantic roles opposite white co-stars.

Ben Arogundade Author

Beauty History & Culture by Ben Arogundade, Author of 'Black Beauty'.





HOLLYWOOD BLACK: Biracial actresses Thandie Newton and Paula Patton star in the 'Mission Impossible' film series. The movie industry has always shown a preference for casting light-skinned black women in high profile roles, as opposed to their darker-skinned counterparts.

biracial-light-skinned-black-hollywood-movie-film-celebrities-thandie-newton-mission-impossible-still-photo-pictures biracial-light-skinned-black-hollywood-movie-film-celebrities-paula-patton-mission-impossible-still-photo-pictures



The number of people worldwide who Google the term, “Light-skinned black women actors”, each month.


The number of people worldwide who Google the phrases “biracial celebrities”, and “mixed race celebrities each month.

*All figures for “Biracial Celebrities & Light-Skinned Black Women Actors - The Stats”, supplied by Google. Figures include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.


black-biracial-hollywood-celebrity-actress-thandie-newton-photo-picture black-biracial-hollywood-celebrity-actress-paula-patton-photo-picture Ben Arogundade Author