Tag Archives: identity

Cheddar Man and Nefertiti tell a tale of two different historical reconstructions

Reconstructions of Cheddar Man and the Younger Lady

Diversity is a hot topic in all arenas, and that includes the world of forensic anthropology. This week, we’ve had two big revelations hit the anthropological news cycle, and while one finding cements what I’ve thought of as a truth long deferred, the other is a head-scratch.

1. Cheddar Man is revealed to be dark-skinned

In what can only be described as a shock to many who assumed England’s ancient peoples were fair-skinned and engaged in racial politics, the oldest complete skeleton in British history, Cheddar Man (named as such because of it being found in Cheddar Gorge), is actually a dark-skinned man with curly dark hair and blue eyes.

This is what scientists originally thought Cheddar Man looked like:

An early bust of Cheddar Man, which depicted him as white.
An early bust of Cheddar Man, which depicted him as white.

And this is what he actually looked like:

An updated reconstruction of Cheddar Man, which features dark skin, blue eyes, and dark hair.
An updated reconstruction of Cheddar Man, which features dark skin, blue eyes, and dark hair. (Channel 4)

According to The Guardian, advanced DNA analysis has revealed that Cheddar Man and his ilk weren’t the light-skinned people science believed them to be. Instead, their skin was “dark to black,” which lends even more weight to the scientific fact that all people originated from Africa; Cheddar Man lived in England shortly after humans migrated to Britain from continental Europe at the end of the last ice age, and white Britons today are the ancestors of this group of migrants.

Cheddar Man’s skin color reveals that the genes for lighter skin “became widespread at a much in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today,” wrote The Guardian’s Hannah Devlin.

I find this fascinating, not just because of the whole “everyone comes from Africa” thing, but because of how this discovery should change the way we view race and skin color. What should happen is that everyone–especially those with racially prejudicial ideas–take a good look at themselves and realize how meaningless skin color actually is. If tons of white Britons are descendants of this black man, how does this put anyone on a different pedestal from anyone else?

Cheddar Man’s skin revelations should also change the way we see history. Sites like Medieval POC exist to close the gaps in the West’s thought process about how race was conceptualized in the 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19th centuries. But, because of today’s current dialogue about race in history–a dialogue that is laced with stereotypes, racism, and traces of the same pseudo-science that made the Atlantic Slave Trade possible–it can seem hard to open people’s minds up to the fact that darker-skinned people not only lived in what are now white European spaces, but they thrived and, in many cases, accepted by the masses. Race as a construct did enter European society at some point, but our modern thoughts about race are relatively new in relation to the evolution of human society–and they’re erroneous.

As reported in The Guardian:

Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.”

Yoan Diekmann, a computational biologist at University College London and another member of the project’s team, agreed, saying the connection often drawn between Britishness and whiteness was “not an immutable truth. It has always changed and will change.”

What would be cool is if Cheddar Man changes how modern media depicts ancient Europeans and ancient people in general; will this allow for more diverse casting and more in depth storylines, or will Hollywood and British cinema ignore these findings? I hope they don’t, because how cool would it be to see Idris Elba as an ancient European in a period film?

2. Is this Nefertiti the actual Nefertiti?

Another reconstruction making waves is Nefertiti. The Nefertiti we know is the famous bust discovered in 1912, sculpted by the official royal sculptor Thutmose, whose style was decided naturalistic despite him being a part of the highly stylistic and androgynous Amarna Period of Egyptian art. As you can see in the photo below, Nefertiti’s look is defined by a graceful long neck, full lips, a straight, thin nose, and deep tan skin.

Bust of Nefertiti
Bust of Nefertiti (Public Domain/Wikipedia)
Front view of the Nefertiti bust
Front view of the Nefertiti bust (Giovanni/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0)

This isn’t the only Nefertiti sculpture Thutmose created; a granite statue of Nefertiti showcases the same facial features as the more popular bust.

Granite statue of the head of Queen Nefertiti, from the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose. On display at the Ägyptisches Museum.
Granite statue of the head of Queen Nefertiti, from the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose. On display at the Ägyptisches Museum. (Keith Schengili-Roberts/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

So, when this new bust was revealed on Today, people naturally scratched their heads in disbelief. This new bust, which was created after scientists compared historical images of Nefertiti with the facial characteristics of the mummy rumored to be Nefertiti nicknamed “The Younger Lady.” But as you can see below, this bust looks nothing like what Thutmose sculpted eons ago.

A bust depicting a forensic reconstruction of the Younger Lady, now believed to be Nefertiti.
A bust depicting a forensic reconstruction of the Younger Lady, now believed to be Nefertiti. (The Travel Channel/Twitter)

Not every expert is on board with declaring the Younger Lady is actually Nefertiti. Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey project and Research Associate and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, told WGN9 he disbelieves the claim and went into detail as to why the Younger Lady doesn’t line up with what Egyptologists know about Nefertiti’s life. He states a lot in his interview, which I suggest your read in full, but here are the main points.

The Younger Lady, who was buried alongside other familial mummies in Amenhotep’s royal tomb, is actually the daughter of Amenhotep and Queen Tiye, and is also the mother of Tutankhamun. This connection was revealed through leading Egyptologist Zahi Hawass’ DNA testing of the mummies found in the tomb, including the Younger Lady. According to Johnson, there is “no text” where Nefertiti was identified as a royal daughter. “If she had been a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye, it would have been clearly stated in her inscriptions, and there are hundreds of text that survive mentioning Nefertiti with no mention of her parents.”

• All of the sculptures of Nefertiti from the Amarna Period show the same facial characteristics–“a straight nose, heavy-lidded eyes, long graceful neck, and a strong square jaw.” As Johnson states, “The forensically reconstructed face with its narrow skull, deep-set eyes, and triangular jaw is beautiful but in no way resembles the portraits that survive of Nefertiti. That said, they could be relatives.” Johnson believes they could be cousins instead.

• As “the gateway out of the African continent,” Egypt has always had a racially diverse citizenry, and Amenhotep III had many wives who were both Egyptian and foreign, including Caucasian women. But, said Johnson, Nefertiti’s skintone would still be darker than how it’s presented in the recreation. “A brown skin color would have probably been more true to the individual represented, and to her times.”

So with all of this said, what do I think about this bust? I think that, while being expertly rendered, it doesn’t match up to what Thutmose sculpted, and he was actually there during her life. If anyone should know what she looked like, it should be him. Granted, there could be some artistic liberties; some of the characteristics of the Amarna Period include highly feminine features and royalty were usually depicted as youthful, regardless of their age. But Thutmose is notable in that he sculpted the middle aged and elderly as well as the young. He even sculpted an older Nefertiti, depicting the changes her body underwent from birthing children. To be fair, this could have been stylistic as well, to showcase fertility, but if that’s the case, why create the other sculptures, which look true to life?

Another caveat is that perhaps for royalty, Thutmose combined both reality and fantasy. Despite the realism present, there are still stylistic elements that can be found in the Nefertiti bust. The symmetry of the face, for one, could be read as a calculated artistic choice. The huge eyebrows, which might have been painted on the real Nefertiti (since ancient Eygptians filled in and exaggerated their real eyebrows with makeup) add to the symmetry and perfection of the sculpture. It could be that the bust we know and love is just an old-school version of FaceTune. That’s a theory that could be truer than we think, since sarcophogi, such as the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun is also artistically stylized and doesn’t reflect all of what’s shown in the reconstructions of Tutankhamun, as pictured below.

I personally don’t want to believe everything from Thutmose’s workshop was a lie, though. Nefertiti’s beauty was heralded in her time as much as it is now, which leads me to believe there’s more truth to the iconic bust than fakery. If Thutmose captured beauty, then I’m sure she was actually beautiful in real life. The Younger Lady doesn’t look bad, though. I will say from looking at one of the reconstructions of King Tut that the Younger Lady is most definitely his mother. They have the same overbite, jaw structure, and eye socket structure.

Comparison between the reconstructions of the Younger Lady and Tutankhamun.
Comparison between the reconstructions of the Younger Lady and Tutankhamun.

To address the skin color issue: Ancient Egyptians’ skintones were clearly documented by artists contemporary to the times. Artists of the Coptic Period engaged in realism when painting subjects such as the subjects depicted in the Fayum mummy portraits, which showcased men and women with dark hair and tan skin.

Portrait of a man from the Fayum province, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of a man from the Fayum province, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of a woman from the Fayum province with a ringlet hairstyle, an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings. Royal Museum of Scotland. (Public Domain)
Portrait of a woman from the Fayum province with a ringlet hairstyle, an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings. Royal Museum of Scotland. (Public Domain)
Portrait of a man with sword belt from the Fayum province with British Museum. Public Domain
Portrait of a man with sword belt from the Fayum province with British Museum. (Public Domain)

There are also other reconstructions of ancient Egyptians. Here’s another reconstruction of Tutankhamun published in National Geographic in 2005–this one is a little more favorable to him in the looks department and more closely matches some of the sculptures made of him during his life. In this reconstruction, his skin tone is definitely a dark tan.

Forensic reconstruction of Tutankhamun.
Forensic reconstruction of Tutankhamun. (Photo credit: Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egypt, and National Geographic Society, 2005)

Here’s another reconstruction, this time of a woman nicknamed “Meritamun.” The reconstruction includes information gathered from modern day Egyptians, which you can assume includes skintone.

Reconstruction of ancient Egyptian woman nicknamed "Meritamun."
Reconstruction of ancient Egyptian woman nicknamed “Meritamun.” ( Jennifer Mann/Paul Burston/University of Melbourne)

Based on the other reconstructions and mummy portraits, as well as a Google search of images of modern-day Egyptians, it seems like what’s throwing people off is the undertone used for the Younger Lady’s skintone reconstruction. Yes, there were olive-toned Egyptians; with a port empire like Egypt, leading to a cross-cultural mix, there had to have been a myriad of skintones among Egyptians. But the Younger Lady’s undertone is probably a smidge too pink, which lends the eye to read it as “European” or, like how some called it online, “white.” Meanwhile, the other reconstructions, statues, and paintings from ancient Egypt show people with yellow and neutral undertones. While the Younger Lady does have a touch of yellow in her undertone, the pink is affecting how the yellow would affect the overall skintone.

But I actually hesitate to call this reconstruction of the Younger Lady “white.” Again, there were a myriad of skintones in ancient Egypt, and while I have some issues with how much pink there is in the Younger Lady’s undertone, it’s still worth understanding that a woman this color wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in ancient Egypt. She might look “white,” but it doesn’t mean she’d be out of place. If it turns out her skintone was actually this color, undertones and all, her skin also wouldn’t make her any less African.

What do you think about these reconstructions? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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Start 2018 off right and get your goals set with your 2018 cheat sheet!

It’s 2018! For many of us, that means fresh starts. It certainly means that for me.

I’m sure you can relate to this, but 2017 was a serious challenge for me. Without a doubt, it was one of the toughest years of my life. Granted, when life gives you challenges, it’s only meant for you to grow. But you can’t deny how hard it is to learn those lessons and deal with the awful packages some of those lessons tend to come in.

If you’re like me and you’re glad you’ve made it out of the fire, congratulations! You’ve endured some tough stuff, which means you’re much stronger than you’ve probably given yourself credit for. You’ve learned some hard life lessons, dealt with unforeseen drama, and found more of yourself in the process. Now that we’re out of the forge of 2017 all brand new, let’s keep 2018 going in the right direction by mapping out exactly how you want your 2018 to go down.

It’s definitely important to keep your goals and life lessons handy because if you forget (and you will), you can easily find and review them to keep yourself on the right path. What I’ve done is make myself a laptop wallpaper that doubles as my 2018 goals checklist. My plan is to update this checklist throughout the year, so throughout the year, my wallpaper will have new goals added or old goals scratched off. (If you’d like to make your own, Canva already has a wallpaper-sized template with several layouts you can choose from, or you can use the blank template and make your own theme from scratch.)

If you don’t want to make a wallpaper or can access your thoughts better in journal form, I’ve made this short 2018 cheat sheet PDF. You can print out the pages and stick them in your notebook, journal, binder, pin them to your wall, or do whatever you need to with them to remind yourself of what you’re working towards and what you’d like to avoid. Click the image to download.

Just as a disclaimer–I’m not a psychologist or therapist. I’m just someone who has learned a lot in 2017 and felt a document like this one will help others jumpstart getting their lives in order for 2018. I’m gonna use this myself, since 2017 wouldn’t quit, even down its last hours.

2018 is a year I hope we can all look to as a time to get out from under our personal rubble and start anew. It’s time to get rid of bad habits, shake off bad influences and prepare ourselves for awesome lives ahead.

What are some of your goals for 2018? Share if you feel so inclined in the comments section below!

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When will other women of color have their Rose Tico moment in “Star Wars”?

I’ve seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and like the majority (save for a handful of fans, who I’ll have words about later on once spoiler fever has died down), I absolutely loved the film. The storyline and its more cerebral themes were amazing and refreshing–as SyFy Fangrrls/SyFyWire contributing editor Carly Lane wrote on Twitter, this is the most cerebral Star Wars film yet–and the introductions of new characters such as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and DJ (Benecio Del Toro) were organic and fun. It’s as if these characters have been around since the beginning.

Rose is also one of the characters that reminded me how little women of color are shown in Star Wars and how I wish I, as a black woman, could have had the same kind of representational experience in this fictional galaxy.

Watching Rose

Lucasfilm/Disney

I was excited to see not Rose and her sister Paige, to see representation long overdue. It was gratifying to watch Rose challenge Finn on his planned desertion and to inspire hope in him and the rest of the Resistance. She’s a tremendous force in this film, and I think the film–and the franchise–is better for it.

I’m extremely happy that finally, after an entire two years of back-to-back whitewashing of Asian characters and stories, a big blockbuster film has put an Asian character at the center of its story. I’ve covered so many films that negate Asian characters or recast them as white actors, and there are even some projects I haven’t covered just because I couldn’t bring myself to write about yet another property that just didn’t get what it was doing. But seeing Rose was seeing what films can do when they are created by someone conscientious enough to tackle proper representation.

There was one thing that held me back a bit during my viewing of The Last JediStar Wars has yet to give an African-American female character the same treatment as Rose. To be fair, Star Wars has yet to give a character who looks like me more than five seconds on screen.

Watching Rose kick the film into high gear reminded me of a coping mechanism I’d developed as a child on the chance I was watching a TV show that had no black women as a part of its cast. As a kid, I’d gravitate towards the character who was a minority like me and live vicariously through that character. The first time I remember doing this was as a 5-year-old watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. There was a black man as part of the cast, but no black women. But, there was Thuy Trang’s character Trini Kwan, the Yellow Power Ranger. Trini was my way into Power Rangers, and during recess, when my friends and I would pretend to be the Power Rangers, I would always make sure I got the Yellow Ranger. She may not have been my same race, but to me, she represented me and other girls of color who weren’t represented on the show. As a child, seeing Trini kick butt and be cool helped me formulate my personal voice and worldview. Through Trini, I felt like I could have a place on a show that apparently wasn’t designed for me.

I felt the same way with Rose. Through her, I felt happiness because women of color were finally getting their overdue shot at being heroes. Young girls, Asian girls especially, will be able to see themselves included in a fantastical place like the Star Wars universe. That kind of feeling is one that is unmatched–I felt it somewhat when The Force Awakens introduced Finn (John Boyega) as one of our new Star Wars heroes.

But the black woman is still left out. Despite my love for Rose, what I can’t ignore is a deep, personal longing to see black girls (and grown women like me) represented on screen in a hero they can be proud of. The longing doesn’t stop at just my own race, though; when will all women of color get equal representation in Star Wars? Now that Rose is here, will the Star Wars powers that be realize they owe the members of Star Wars‘ WOC fanbase the heroes they deserve?

Star Wars’ WOC track record

Lucasfilm

Star Wars having a rough time with representing women of color is nothing new. In fact, I wrote about it last year during the Rogue One hype. As I wrote then, women of color are largely absent from the films despite having a larger presence in the books. One character, Imperial Naval Officer Rae Sloane and Han Solo’s former wife, Sana Starros, have important roles in the Star Wars saga. But not only is it unclear if Sana will be portrayed in the upcoming Han Solo prequel Solo: A Star Wars Story, but Rae has yet to make a film appearance in any of the new Star Wars films.

Combine that with the fact that there is a highly sought-after actress that is a part of the films, but is currently stuck playing behind CG and motion-capture. Lupita Nyong’o was a big get for the franchise–The Force Awakens was one of her first acting roles after winning the Oscar for her role in 12 Years A Slave. But she has been tasked with portraying Maz Kanata, a character who is lively and fun, but is fully computer-generated. All we hear of Nyong’o is her voice.

Before Rose, the most prominent Asian female character in Star Wars was Janina Gavankar’s Iden Versio in the video game Star Wars: Battlefront II. But, like Rae and Sana, it’s unclear if Iden will ever show up in any film or TV Star Wars properties. Ditto for Shara Bey, Poe Dameron’s mother, who does appear in the comic book series Star Wars: Shattered Empire. Women of other racial and ethnic groups, such as Native American women, have no representation at all.

Adding insult to injury is how Star Wars has typically used women of color as WOC-coded sex aliens. As I wrote back in 2016:

Another strike against Lucasfilm and the Star Wars universe is how often black women and other women of color are often cast as Twi’leks, whose women are often enslaved as sex objects. To quote Wookipedia:

“Since female Twi’leks were regarded as graceful and beautiful beings, many of them were forced into a life of slavery at the hands of the galaxy’s wealthy and powerful.”

It’s more than a little disturbing that while women of color are all but absent in the Star Wars universe, they are readily cast as women who are sold into a sexual slavery.

It’s even more disturbing that Oola, the only sex slave coded as a black woman due to the actress, gets killed moments after we see her on screen in Return of the Jedi. There could have been a better outcome for her instead of just being used as disposable eye-candy.

To The Last Jedi co-writer/director Rian Johnson’s credit, he did make it a point to showcase more women of color, particularly African-American women, in scenes. One of the biggest cameos of the film is Chewing Gum‘s Michaela Coel as a Resistance tech. We see another black woman as a Resistance fighter pilot, and a South Asian woman is also featured as part of General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) ragtag team. Black women and other women of color also feature heavily in the luxurious Canto Bight scenes.

But the scenes that do feature women of color, black women especially, only feature them either in the background or in non-speaking cameos. We never get to intimately know other women are who are Latina, Native American, African-American or South Asian, etc. Much like the lone black woman in Rogue One, we know women of color do exist in this far away galaxy, but we never know them outside of being set dressing.

That’s what makes Tran as Rose even more powerful. Johnson said he cast regardless of ethnicity for Rose, and that opportunity–unencumbered by preconceived notions of what a “Rose Tico” should look like–led Johnson to finding the perfect person for the part.

“We saw a lot of talented actresses of a very broad range–but honestly, it was more about finding Kelly,” said Johnson to The Los Angeles Times‘ Jen Yamato. “There was something about Kelly that had that kind of genuine oddball nature and a real sweetness to her. She has the most open heart of anyone I’ve ever met and I knew that this was going to shine through onscreen. I knew that I was going to be rooting for her in the movie.”

As Yamato wrote, Johnson’s decision to create Rose as a main character and casting inclusively “led to the biggest leap forward for Asian representation Hollywood has ever dared to make on such a large scale.”

Watching Rose on screen provided me with both pride at seeing a woman of color finally take the reins of a Star Wars film, but it also made me a bit wistful that we have yet to see other women of color get the same opportunity.

But where Rose has paved the way, surely others will follow, right?

First Rose, now others

Let’s go back to Solo. This movie is the closest on the horizon, and it’s also the Star Wars can finally break the color barrier. Even though it’s unclear who Emilia Clarke is playing (reportedly, it was a role actresses like Tessa Thompson, Zoe Kravitz, and Adria Arjona tried for as well), Thandie Newton is also rumored to be part of the cast. We have virtually no substantial casting news on this front, so we have to wait until we get closer to the film’s 2018 release date. But, if Newton is a big part of the Solo cast, then she could very well be part of a new wave of diverse Star Wars leading ladies.

Regardless, Star Wars should come to grips with their startling avoidance of women of color. Now that inroads are being made thanks to Rose, writers and directors should continue to make giving women of color a voice in Star Wars a priority. Not as sex slaves and not as CG characters but as the heroes. Hopefully, Rose is the first of many more like her.

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Al-Jazeera English’s Malika M. Bilal on the importance of the Ibtihaj Muhammad Barbie

In November, United States Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal for the U.S., was immortalized as a Barbie. The doll was revealed by Muhammad herself at the Glamour Woman of the Year Summit. The doll is part of Barbie’s ongoing “Shero” collection, which honors women who break through glass ceilings and inspire girls around the world.

The Shero collection already has some heavy hitters in its collection–dolls representing director Ava DuVernay, U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, plus size model Ashley Graham, and Misty Copeland have highlighted Barbie’s renewed focus on uplifting and inspiring girls to reach for their dreams. Muhammad’s doll follows in those footsteps.

“Through playing with Barbie, I was able to imagine and dream about who I could become,” said Ibtihaj Muhammad to Barbie.com. “I love that my relationship with Barbie has come full circle, and now I have my own doll wearing a hijab that the next generation of girls can use to play out their own dreams.”

“Barbie is celebrating Ibtihaj not only for her accolades as an Olympian, but for embracing what makes her stand out,” said Sejal Shah Miller, Vice President of Global Marketing for Barbie. “Ibtihaj is an inspiration to countless girls who never saw themselves represented, and by honoring her story, we hope this doll reminds them that they can be and do anything.”

Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive also said how Muhammad has defied stereotypes to become a history-making Olympian.

“Ibtihaj Muhammad has challenged every stereotype—which to me is the definition of a modern American woman,” she said. “Last year, she was the first athlete from the U.S to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, and today we are thrilled to celebrate Ibtihaj as the first hijab-wearing Barbie. She will play a tremendous role in ensuring that girls of the future see themselves represented fully and beautifully in our culture.”

That role isn’t lost on host of Al Jazeera English‘s Emmy-nominated news talk show The Stream, Malika M. Bilal, who wrote on The Undefeated what the meaning of Muhammad in Barbie form means to black Muslim women and girls, including herself and her niece.

“Her announcement comes at a time in which the erasure of African-American Muslims seems particularly pronounced. A time in which a major black women’s lifestyle magazine released a list of ‘100 Woke Women’ and yet couldn’t seem to find one woke African-American Muslim woman to include among them,” she wrote, adding that the erasure “reinforces the idea that Muslim equals Arab, South Asian, immigrant, anyone other than an athletic, Olympic medal-winning black woman from New Jersey — one with a modest clothing line, hundreds of thousands of social media followers and now a Barbie in her likeness.”

“The introduction of this doll lends support to the reality that a black Muslim woman can be both authentically American and authentically Muslim,” she wrote. ” A notion driven home by statistics that estimate a significant percentage of the enslaved Africans brought to this country were Muslim.”

“It’s not just young girls who are representation-starved. Grown women like myself, and the many who’ve retweeted, reposted and reblogged the Barbie announcement, are just as excited, not just for the next generation of girls but also for ourselves,” she wrote. “…[W]hen the Ibtihaj Muhammad Shero Barbie goes on sale in 2018, I’ll be ordering one to add to my niece’s collection. But I’m not ashamed to admit that another one just might find a home in my house as well.”

Are you going to order yourself an Ibtihaj Barbie? Talk about it in the comments!

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Zendaya tackles colorism in “A White Lie,” the true story of the first black woman to graduate Vassar

Zendaya’s latest project is going to be, I think one that defines her career in the best way possible.

According to Shadow and Act via Deadline, Zendaya will star in and produce A White Lie, based on the psychological thriller The Gilded Years, a novel by Karin Tanabe.

Tanabe’s book is based around “the true story of Anita Hemmings, a light-skinned African American woman” who is the daughter of a janitor, but due to her skintone, is able to pass for white to attend Vassar College in the 1900s. According to Shadow and Act, Hemmings is “treated as a wealthy and educated white woman and sparks a romance with a rich Harvard student.”

Along with Zendaya, Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter will produce through Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production arm. The script is being written by Monica Beletsky.

This is a really exciting project to see from Zendaya. We haven’t seen much commentary on skintone, colorism, and skin privilege coming from Hollywood productions–the highest profile movie commenting on colorism is An Imitation of Life, made in 1934 and remade in 1959, which focused on a young woman who resented her black mother, a maid, and lived as a white woman only to meet personal tragedy. Pinky, released in 1949, also dealt with colorism and a light-skinned woman who passed as white to live a life of privilege. With Hollywood’s new wave of creators and actors, it’s heartening to see Hollywood projects beginning to tackle the under-explored nuances of racism, colorism, and privilege in America.

What do you think about Zendaya’s new film? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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Exclusive Interview: “Charcoal” writer/director Francesca Andre talks colorism

Francesca Andre has a message for everyone with her short film, Charcoal. The main theme of her film is about colorism and its damaging effects on the black diaspora. Her two main characters go through a journey of self-acceptance and self-awareness, and that journey is something Andre hopes is replicated in her viewers.

I’ve had the chance to speak with Andre recently about her film (which you can learn more about in a previous article and the trailer below) as well as her opinions on how colorism affects us. I also asked about the Dove ad that sparked controversy, and how we can heal as a people from our societal wounds. Andre offers clear insight into her own journey towards healing and how we can continue the process of healing in our own lives. Here are highlights from that conversation.

Charcoal can be seen at the Yonkers Film Festival Nov. 3-8.

The inspiration for Charcoal:

Colorism is something that has impacted my life at a very young age. It’s very common in Haiti—it’s not white people versus black people, it’s really lighter skin versus darker skin. At a very young age, I was made aware of that. When I was probably five years old, I received a dark-skinned doll. When I took it home, people started making fun of the doll, saying the doll is ugly. My mother being brown-skinned, my grandmother being lighter-skinned, and my grandfather and my father being darker skinned men, people just made comparisons to the skintones.

Colorism and the lasting effects of racism in the black diaspora:

We’re still dealing with the consequences [of racism] as a people when it comes to economic empowerment, how we are being perceived and anything else—colorism sits right in there. It’s still affecting us, we’re still dealing with it, it’s not a thing of the past. We’re still healing from it. Those of us who are aware and are making a conscious decision to talk about it. You can’t really talk about racism or the advancement of us as a people and not talk about colorism.

Here in America, [the Dove colorism ad] was a mainstream brand that everyone can see, but you have some smaller brands, when you go to Caribbean markets that are selling [similar] products. You have women making skin-bleaching lotion and selling it to other women. I guess for some people here, it’s not as blatant as it is in other cultures—if you go to CVS, you probably won’t be able to find it, right? But it’s happening. It never went away, at least from my experience; as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always known about these products.

Even thinking about “good” hair,the hair is not closer to our hair texture. It’s something closer to European hair texture. But when you look at our hair and the versatility of our hair, to me it’s like, really good hair! It took me a long time to reprogram myself, my thoughts, and redefine what “good” hair was for me to access [my hair] and accept it, love it, and embrace it…I don’t have any problems with it now.

Francesca Andre

On how to heal from colorism:

I do feel like we need to start having conversations, and an important part of that is the healing part of that. I think you will see that you’ll find more women going natural more than ever. Here’s what’s fascinating: how so many black women did not know their hair period because they just haven’t been dealing with their hair…they did not know how to take care of their hair; it’s been processed. When they find out what products work on our hair and what they can do to make their hair do this and that. Again, it’s knowledge and healing and more women are stepping out. It’s not a strange thing now to see a black woman with natural hair in the workplace. There was a time when this wasn’t a thing. Now, more people are going natural, embracing it and being unapologetic about it. I feel like we’re going forward. Even with skintones, too—[online campaigns and phrases like] “My melanin’s poppin’,” #BlackGirlMagic—we are healing collectively. I hope the men are using those terms as well; I hope the men are healing because they are also victims of colorism. I hope that we as a people stop the vicious cycle.

…First of all, I think [the first step to healing is] knowing what colorism is. Many people don’t even know what colorism means. It really starts the conversation. It’s hard to change beliefs, but one way we can do that as a people is to talk—ask [about it] and dialogue. Increase representation [in the media] to make women more confident in who they are and how they look. As an artist and storyteller, the way I [change] people is including it and showing it, talking about it and not pushing it away…Whenever I see a girl with natural hair, I tell them “I love your hair” or “I love your twists”; I make it my job to remind them because all the messages they are receiving are the opposite.

How Charcoal can start viewers’ journeys toward self-acceptance:

I think there’s a universal aspect to it. I hope people feel inspired and hopeful. I hope people find some sort of healing or be the beginning of that journey. We all can relate to pain, and the characters go through that, but we can see how they overcome that.♦

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Weekend reading: What Munroe Bergdorf meant in her Facebook post + more

There’s tons of stuff going on in the media including the continued fallout L’Oréal is facing for firing black trans model/activist Munroe Bergdorf for her comments about systemic racism in relation to the violence in Charlottesville. Here’s what’s happening out there:

What Munroe Bergdorf meant when she said all white people are racist|Quartz

19-Year-Old Haitian Japanese Tennis Star, Naomi Osaka, Defeats U.S. Open Champ|Blavity

Nitty Scott Celebrates “La Diaspora” In New Short Film|Fader

Janelle Monae’s Undiscussed Queer Legacy|Into

Chance The Rapper is starting a new awards show for teachers|A.V. Club

In Indonesia, 3 Muslim Girls Fight for Their Right to Play Heavy Metal|The New York Times

Waiting for a Perfect Protest?|The New York Times

How ‘Dunkirk’ failed and the continued historical whitewashing of World War II in big budget film|Shadow and Act

Why It’s SO Important That Comics Are Finally Including More Girls|TeenVogue

James Wong Howe: how the great cinematographer shaped Hollywood|The Telegraph

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Lana Condor finally becomes the rom-com lead she always wished to be

You’ve seen Lana Condor even if you don’t remember her. If you’ve seen X-Men: Apocalypse, you’ve seen her as Jubilee, even though the film did her dirty and didn’t actually let her speak. But you’ll not only hear her speak in her latest film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, she’ll be starring as the love interest, a dream she never thought possible.

Condor spoke to NBC Asian America about her role in the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA novel. In the film, Condor stars as Jean Song Covey, a biracial Korean/white American teenager who lives with her two sisters and widowed dad. The book and film will follow Covey’s love life, which gets completely turned upside down when the letters she’s written to boys she’s liked are taken from under her bed and sent.

“A few months ago when I was on a plane, I was daydreaming about how fun it’d be to act in a romantic comedy, because I don’t know of any rom-coms where Asian women are the leads,” she said. “And now here we are.”

Han herself gave Condor her blessing with the role. “That is truly groundbreaking,” she wrote on Instagram. “I haven’t seen Asian American women centered on the screen since Joy Luck Club which was nearly 25 years ago. Representation is so important, and this means the world to me. More than anything, I hope that the success of this movie will lead to more opportunities for Asian American actors and writers down the line.”

Condor said she hopes her work career can change the landscape for the Asian diaspora in Hollywood, something she started thinking about after landing her role as Jubilee.

“It got me thinking, if I can just put a little dent in the wall that is Hollywood in terms of race, then I’ve done enough,” she said. “Now, I’ve been so lucky in my career that I might be able to put an even bigger dent in that wall than I thought.”

You can read more at NBC News.

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Ruby Rhod and Bubble: Blackness in “The Fifth Element” and “Valerian”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is coming out this month, and upon seeing Rihanna as the alluring dancer Bubble in the various trailers, I knew there was something to discuss, particularly how Bubble relates to another black character in a Luc Besson sci-fi film, Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod.

How so? You might be saying. Well, from where I’m sitting, having two characters who are at a crossroads between Afrofuturistic empowerment and reductive racial stereotypes begs to be written about. Clearly, these two characters are talking to each other, and deciphering their conversation is one that involves parsing through how blackness, black queerness, and black sexuality are constantly put at war against each other in Western society. These two characters embody that tug of war between ownership and exploitation.

With that said, let’s get into it.

Ruby as a statement—and condemnation—on black queerness

As a character, Ruby Rhod is an absolute conundrum. To put it bluntly, he’s the most singular character in The Fifth Element and certainly one of the most singular in sci-fi films as a whole. As Drew Mackie from UnicornBooty wrote, Ruby Rhod is “a queer-coded character the likes of whom audiences likely hadn’t seen before in a mainstream ‘popcorn’ movie—and by and large haven’t seen since.”

Ben Child for the Guardian breaks Ruby’s character down into even more detail:

“Decked out in extravagant Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits, and spending most of the movie either squealing in high-camp horror at the sight of aliens taking over a luxury intergalactic cruise ship or luring fluttery-eyed space vixens into virtual orgasms merely by his presence, Rhod is a character whose rejection of gender norms is so elevated that they seem to have arrived through a wormhole from the year 3000, never mind 2263 (The Fifth Element’s ostensible time frame). At one point Tucker chooses to be called ‘Miss’ Ruby, and yet there is a definite hint of phallicism in that rock star surname. Moreover, Rhod appears to be the very definition of red-blooded masculinity. Is it any wonder that Prince was the model for the role, with Tucker only recruited once it became clear the purple one was not going to sign on the dotted line?”

Ruby is a fascinating character to dissect because, whether Besson or Tucker realized it, Ruby’s at the center of the intersections of black queerness, black masculinity, and the influence of black American culture on mainstream pop culture.

The thing that’s the most apparent about Ruby, aside from being black, is that he’s most definitely a representation of queerness. I’m specifically using that term because as a character, Ruby doesn’t seem to define himself as straight or gay. While he overtly makes references to heterosexual sex, what with his seduction of the spaceship’s stewardesses, his spectacular rose-lined outfit, eye makeup, and tinted lip gloss suggests he’s subtly giving his time at the opera with Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas date-like undertones instead of merely a PR opportunity with a contest winner.

Speaking of his clothes, Ruby’s costumes directly reflect his gender-bending and sexually fluid sensibilities. Ruby doesn’t wear mere garments. He wears statements. His leopard print unitard exaggerate the feminine collars of the 1950s while also defining his very masculine bulge. His aforementioned opera outfit veers even more into feminine territory.

Ruby is at once a shining moment of Hollywood’s progressiveness and Hollywood’s tight grip on queer stereotypes.

Saeed Jones wrote for Lambda Literary about the push-and-pull effect he gets from Ruby, one of his favorite characters from the film.

“When I was a teenager obsessed with The Fifth Element, I was devoted to the idea that Ruby Rhod was a gay character who gets to take part in saving the universe. Except Ruby isn’t gay. I didn’t know about the phrase ‘gender bending’ at the time and had no schema for an effeminate male character who has sex with more women in the film than the macho protagonist. Ruby was a kind of man I thought would only be possible light years into the future: funny, black, attractive, fierce, and—most importantly—alive by the end of the movie.”

Yet, Ruby falls into many tropes that intersect with both the obsession of showing “black buffoonery” and “girly” gay men. Ruby’s blend of machismo and femininity is what gives the character power in the scenes where he’s in control. But it’s when the action starts that Ruby’s power dissolves into frantic screams worthy of a fainting couch. He becomes the worst type of damsel-in-distress—one who cowers behind the man, lacking the fortitude to use calm or logic in tense situations.

In one way, it’s daring that The Fifth Element even dared to show a black man—usually thought of as a lumbering, menacing powerhouse—as a lithe, vulnerable character taking on a traditionally femme role. However, that point could have been made more solidly if Ruby didn’t segue into eye-bulges and wacked-out facial expressions that are only reserved for the most buffoonish of black buffoons in media.

As much as Ruby uplifts the narrative of black queerness in the media, he also does just as much to cement a view of gay culture that has been traditionally held by a lot of people in the black community—that being gay or in any way an non-traditional male is the mark of a defective man. A lot of that view is based in a very limited view of Christianity, but the real root seems to be from the black man’s struggle to reclaim and express his masculinity in the first place.

David A. Love wrote in a 2012 opinion piece for The Grio that the traditional black aversion to homosexuality stems from slavery.

“Voices in the black community, particularly black gay men, point to black male insecurity as a root cause of black homophobia. And that insecurity comes directly from slavery. Since then, black men have struggled to get beyond this emasculation and redefine their image. It is for that reason that machismo traditionally has been highly valued among black people, and homosexuality viewed as a threat to black masculinity.”

Ruby plays into that perception of viewing black queerness as a threat—by acting in a cartoonish, stereotypical and racially-charged fashion, Ruby acts as an avatar for the very fears insecure black men have about black male homosexuality. Those fears aren’t crystalized more than when Ruby literally hides in fear behind Korben, the white male secure in his sexuality enough to take charge and lead the scared Ruby to safety.

To go back to Jones’ Lambda Literary article:

“Ruby Rhod troubles me. He explodes into the narrative, black, loud, and out of nowhere. Like the standard Magical Negro, he is functional in service of the film’s white heroes but has little to know story of his own. We know nothing about him except that he’s hilarious, really loud, and sexually promiscuous. When you set aside his costume choices, he’s really not that different from most black comic characters. In fact, he’s almost offensive…I’d rather not think about it.”

Even with that said, Tucker’s performance is one that makes Ruby one of the standouts from The Fifth Element. He’s vivacious, fun, and electric. Tucker takes Ruby seriously as an actor and channels Prince and Michael Jackson into the role, showing that Tucker gets what Ruby’s about. Speaking of Prince, Prince himself was supposed to play Ruby, but couldn’t do to prior tour commitments. If we look at how Prince played The Kid in Purple Rain and Christopher Tracy in Under the Cherry Moon, you have to wonder how Ruby’s gender and sexual explorations would have been played. Would Prince have challenged Besson about Ruby’s reactions to the first sight of danger or would he have gone along with Besson’s vision? I’m not a psychic or a mind reader, but I feel like Prince would have taken it upon himself to Jedi Mind Trick Besson into letting him rewrite the character into someone much more aware and much more willing to punch a bad guy in the face.

How Ruby Rhod gives possible clues to Bubble’s characterization

As of writing this post, we haven’t seen Valerian, so we don’t know much about Bubble. It also seems like she’s not in the original 1960s French comic books, so we don’t even have canon to draw from. But there are some things we can glean from the trailer from how Ruby Rhod was characterized in The Fifth Element.

Firstly, we see that there’s still the theme of blackness relating to entertainment in some way. Ruby’s claim to fame was being the universe’s most popular radio show host. Bubble’s claim to fame is being what outlets such as Billboard described as an “alien stripper,” but what other outlets have described as an “entertainer.” The idea seems to be that in Besson’s future, blackness is frequently tethered to—or defined by—the objectification and maybe even exploitation that comes with celebrity.

Both Ruby and Bubble are definitely cornerstones in their own universe’s cultures, and for that they are both exalted and exploited for things folks always expect black people to be good at—making music, dancing, and being sexual. They’re both enigmatic people and cariactures of our society’s incessant obsession with the black body, black sexuality, and black talent.

To further illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’ll use one of France’s most famous entertainers, Josephine Baker, as an example. She comes to mind for me because of the fact that eroticism featured heavily in her dance performances. Racial commentary also featured heavily—she often had a push-and-pull between exploiting racial stereotypes and subverting them in her acts. Her most famous act, in which she’s nude except for some sandals, necklaces, and her banana skirt, portrays knowledge of the hyper-sexual black “native” woman stereotype. She uses this stereotype to her advantage, but still, it showcases the Western obsession with the black body. In her acts, Baker becomes less of a dancer and more of an object, funneling all of Western society’s sexual fantasies about blackness into her performances.

Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production “Un Vent de Folie” (Public Domain)

Just from the trailers, Bubble seems to be a character at that same intersection. The only caveat is that it’s unclear just how much power she has over her own sexuality. In that respect, Ruby is more like Baker than Bubble is; we do see Ruby use his sexual prowess to his advantage (and, strangely enough, Ruby’s leopard suit brings up an animalism that is also apparent in Baker’s costumes).

How much can we expect to learn about Bubble in Valerian if we still don’t know a lot about Ruby 20 years after The Fifth Element’s release? I would say we should expect to learn nothing except that she’ll more than likely be defined by her singing and dancing talent, her sexuality—not only as an exotic dancer, but as a black woman, a race of women who have always been objectified and defined solely by sexual stereotypes. In fact, to use Jones’ words, having Bubble as a black woman whose main purpose for the film is to be used for her body is “almost offensive.” If Ruby was defined by stereotypes and not by motivations, it makes sense to expect that Bubble will also be a poorly-defined character.

However, I could be wrong. Like I wrote above, we haven’t seen the film yet. But if you’re going to see Valerian, take special care of how you view Bubble.  At the very least, make sure to take care of her in your mind the same way many take care of Ruby Rhod.