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Biracial Women In Films: Why Hollywood Still Prefers Light-Skinned Black Actresses In Movie Roles

CINEMA'S RELATIONSHIP with race remains rooted in the past, as Hollywood still favours light-skinned black actresses over their darker female counterparts in both lead and support roles. By Ben Arogundade. March 20, 2023.

Light-skinned black Hollwood actresses, biracial beauties Paula Patton and Thandiwe Newton

BIAS FOR BIRACIAL CELEBRITIES : African American star Paula Patton (left) and British actress Thandiwe 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.

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. Black actor Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, who also starred in the movie, formed another mixed 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. This all happened again a backdrop of racial segregation in America. At one time or another, 41 US states had laws against intermarriage across racial lines. Those prohibitions lasted from the 17th century until 1967.


LIGHT-SKINNED BIRACIAL ACTRESSES IN 'MISSION IMPOSSIBLE'
Less than 50 years after Island In The Sun, by contrast, there was hardly any reaction when Tom Cruise kissed Thandiwe 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 — was one of only a handful of women of colour 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 had a bi-racial president.


LIGHT-SKINNED BLACK
Another talented light-skinned, biracial actress, Paula Patton, 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.”


BLACK BEAUTY CASTING
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, is so light-skinned that she “looks like a white woman with a suntan.” Biracial actresses such as Paula Patton, Thandiwe 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 their darker-skinned counterparts out of running for many roles. The Bollywood film industry has the same issue, with light-skinned Indian actresses being promoted ahead of darker ones. Will there ever be a time when things will be fairer in film?

ABOUT ME

Hi there. I am a London-based author, journalist and broadcaster. The history of black Hollywood actresses features in my illustrated book, ‘Black Beauty’, released in 2000 (now sold out). Discover more about me and my work at Ben Arogundade bio.

Ben Arogundade bio photo
Light-skinned black actress Thandie Newton in Mission Impossible
Light-skinned black actress Paula Patton in Mission Impossible

HOLLYWOOD BLACK: Biracial actresses Thandiwe 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 CELEBRITIES & LIGHT-SKINNED BLACK ACTRESSES - ACCORDING TO GOOGLE SEARCH

1,500

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

3,000

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 Actors - According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.

VINTAGE PAULA PATTON INTERVIEW - ON ACTING

More About Thandiwe Newton & Paula Patton

Photo of Hollywood actress Thandiwe Newton
Photo of Hollywood actress Paula Patton

Actress Thandiwe Newton’s battle against childhood racism.

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