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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Movie: The Greatest Showman
Movie Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release date: Christmas Day
Director: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson
Official synopsis: Inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman is an original musical that celebrates the birth of show business & tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.
What do you think of this movie? Sound off in the poll!
Marvel has had a time with inclusiveness in their films. For most of their first two phases, they have failed at it, to be honest. The beginning of their third phase has gotten off to a rocky start with Doctor Strange. However, Marvel seems to be swiftly making up for their errors; first, we had Netflix’s Luke Cage (which has been greenlit for a second season, so hopefully we can get more #ShadyMariah action). We’ve also seen the amazing cast for 2018’s Black Panther. Now, we’ve got the trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming, and boy does it look refreshing.
Let me count the ways in which Spider-Man: Homecoming might be the turning point for Marvel’s films.
1. It actually looks like the real world. Let’s face it; New York City doesn’t look like Sex and the City. I’d say Law and Order, New York: Undercover and Living Single are the closest things to what New York actually looks and feels like. It’s a high-class town, and it’s also one of the grimiest towns. It’s also full of people of color.
Spider-Man: Homecoming, unlike other Marvel films, actually portrays New York as the diverse melting pot it is. The film also goes one step further and imbues a freshness to the city. Maybe it’s because the film is also in a high school setting and the majority of the cast are young. But this version of New York matches the vibe of the city—fast-paced and full of life.
2. A black girl is the love interest. Laura Harrier’s Liz Allan is “the new top,” (which is what Peter calls her, I think), and I couldn’t be happier. Now, if I’m being honest, we can talk about colorism issues, since there’s no black or biracial girl who’s darker than a paper bag in this movie. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Harrier is the first black love interest in a Marvel movie. That’s both a legendary title (for Harrier) and a shameful one (for Marvel).
How Peter, who seems way out of her league, gets her as his girl is something I’m dying to figure out, because I’m not seeing how Liz would give Peter the time of day. And maybe Zendaya’s character (who is or isn’t Mary Jane) is the one Peter’s actually supposed to be with (a la Clueless). If that’s the case, I hope the racists are extra mad, since either way, Peter ends up with a non-white girlfriend.
3. Marvel finally showcases positive multicultural representation. Jacob Batalon’s character Ned Leeds is a Filipino-American actor hitting the scene in a big way, and what better way to kick off your Hollywood career than in a splashy Marvel movie. The film also showcases the talents of Kenneth Choi, Orange is the New Black‘s Selenis Leyva (shown in the trailer), Hannibal Burress, Garcelle Beauvais, Tony Revolori, Abraham Attah, Donald Glover and many, many others. This is the most diverse cast in Marvel Studios history, which is damning praise, but praise nonetheless.
4. It looks like the Spider-Man movie we’ve always been promised. When the original Spider-Man film starring Tobey Maguire came out, we were happy with it; it seemed cool and the comic book movie genre was still in its infancy. But now, after so many iterations of Spider-Man’s origin story, the film franchise was in danger of dying out just because we were all sick of seeing Uncle Ben die. Thankfully, Marvel had the sense to skip all of that drudgery this time around. Uncle Ben is already dead, Aunt May isn’t a grandma, and we’re following Peter (who actually looks like he should be in high school—sorry, Tobey) as he finds his place within the Avengers, aka The Grown Adults Club. Also, we get some extra Iron Man appearances for our trouble. The film is ready to immerse us in the rest of the stories Spider-Man has for us.
Check out the trailer below and write what you think in the comments section. Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theaters July 7, 2017.
It’s official: Zendaya is playing Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Marvel film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. But why is everyone quick to assume that Mary Jane is black? What if it turns out that Mary Jane is biracial, like the actress playing her? And if this is true, how will this positively affect other biracial girls of African-American and Caucasian heritage that see her on-screen?
There has been plenty of talk about the lack of mono-racial people of color (for lack of a better word) for a while now. But it seems like most people don’t turn that conversation to a group of people of color who have been unrepresented, sometimes twice or many times over: biracial and multiracial people of color.
Technically, most of us in the U.S. have at least one other ethnicity in our heritage. But most of us claim just one. In many respects, the “one drop rule” still applies, even in the mouths of people who state that they don’t believe it. If you look black, you’re black. If you look Asian, you’re Asian, etc. Halle Berry famously said that her mother, who is white, told her to accept that she’s black, because that’s all anyone would see. Even President Barack Obama, who is biracial, is constantly called the first black president, even though that title negates the other half of his heritage. The same is happening with Zendaya’s Mary Jane; most people assume she’s playing a black Mary Jane, when it could be that she’s playing a biracial Mary Jane, a character that could draw on Zendaya’s own experiences as a biracial woman.
I should stress that I’m putting asterisks and air-quotes around the word “could.” Knowing how Marvel is at representation sometimes, there’s the overwhelming possibility that Zendaya is playing a black character. However, this particular film has the most inclusive casting of a Marvel film, and none of it seems like stunt casting. This film, as far as I’m concerned, is a watershed moment for Marvel and could signal a higher degree of focus and sensitivity towards casting. This sensitivity might also be applied to characterization. If it is, that would be a boon for biracial people, specifically those of African-American and Caucasian heritage, because biracial and multiracial people are hardly ever showcased in the media, and when they are, they are usually shown in an objectifying and dehumanizing light.
According to The Critical Media Project, the 19th and 20th centuries generally showcased biracial people as the “tragic mulatto,” the byproduct of a sordid relationship between a white and black couple. These characters were usually seen in a binary light, being tragic figures because they couldn’t fit into either the white or black worlds. The context in which these characters were viewed was from a white point of view; the only value these characters had were if they could pass as white, and if they couldn’t then their supposed tragedy made them unfit to exist in a world that only viewed race in terms of “undesirable” blackness and “exceptional” whiteness. There are several films like this that have been shown on TCM, but the most popular one has to be Imitation of Life, in which the biracial woman rejects her black mother, passes as white, and remains as such until her boyfriend leaves her because of her black heritage. (Spoiler alert: Her mother dies of a broken heart after her daughter tells her she hates her; the daughter only comes to her senses after her mother has died and she flings herself onto her mother’s casket during her funeral procession.)
Today though, biracial and multiracial people are now thought of as the product of an exotic, idealized future. This sounds like it should be positive, but it still puts biracial and multiracial people in terms of theory, not reality. To quote The Critical Media Project:
“…[T]he increasingly globalized nature of identity means that the conversation around mixed race tends to move beyond an isolated focus on black/white issues to incorporate other racial and ethnic identities. Mixed race individuals are often talked about in futuristic terms, conceptualized as modern hybrid beings that signal a faster, stronger and better world ahead. They are also often sexualized and fetishized as mysterious, exotic, sexy and extraordinary looking.”
Even though the tone of the conversation has shifted, biracial and multiracial people are still afflicted with stereotyping and objectification. Maybe one reason we rarely see biracial and multiracial people represented in the media is because too many people still view the idea of a multiracial society as a futuristic, sci-fi world that isn’t here yet, when in fact, it is here. It’s been here for centuries. In short, things have got to get out of the theoretical and into the practical when it comes to representing biracial and multiracial people as people, people who live in the now. Zendaya’s Mary Jane could go a long way in beginning to right that wrong.
The biggest film featuring an interracial family in recent memory is Infinitely Polar Bear, starring Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo. Mirren Lyell for Mixed Nation also cites Nickelodeon shows Sanjay and Craig and The Haunted Hathaways as recent TV shows depicting interracial families. But there should be more films like this. Indeed, there should be more media of all types about multiracial and biracial people. As John Paul Brammer of Blue Nation Review wrote:
In the context of the media diversity debate, multiracial people exist in a precarious place. On the one hand, they seem to be left out for the sake of a more direct approach to criticism of media representation of minorities. “We need more black characters” or “We need more Asian characters” are strong demands with a history of mischaracterization and discrimination behind them. “We need more multiracial people of color” is seen as a level of intersectionality that Hollywood simply can’t process.
On the other hand, multiracial characters are often employed as copouts in the media, used to represent ethnic minorities in a more “palatable” way for mainstream audiences. Multiracial black actors with light skin are hired over black actors with darker skin. White Latinos are hired over Latinos with ethnic features.
Even films with progressive racial themes have come under fire for this. The film Dear White People, a film created to represent black people and discuss white racism, was criticized for casting as its protagonist a biracial, light-skinned black woman.
More representations of biracial and multiracial characters could help quell Hollywood’s usage of actors and actresses of mixed heritage as social and political wedges. More representations would also help build the self-esteem of many kids who don’t see characters who represent all of their heritage on screen. According to this article by Astrea Greig, MA for the American Psychological Association:
“Despite large growth, the multiracial population still comprises a very small fraction of the U.S. population (Humes, Jones, & Ramirez, 2011). Moreover, multiracial people in the media are often depicted as monoracial (CNPAAEMI, 2009; Dalmage, 2000; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). As a result of the small population and lack of media representation, multiracial youth may feel that they do not have a multiracial community and lack role models to help them understand their mixed identity (Dalmage, 2000; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Multiracial role models are thus extremely helpful for mixed children and teens (Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Moreover, having a community of others with a mixed racial and/or ethnic background has shown to help improve psychological well-being (Iijima Hall, 2004; Sanchez & Garcia, 2009).”
If Marvel allowed it, Mary Jane Watson could be one such role model for biracial children. Her story, which as many have said is independent of race, would go a long way to represent biracial and multiracial people not as an ideal or as a tragedy, but as an ordinary person who faces personal and social issues big and small. A biracial Mary Jane would be yet a further stepping stone towards true identity equality in Hollywood and in society.
What do you think about a biracial Mary Jane? Write about it in the comments section below!
Can there be a course to teach folks in the limelight how to think before they speak? Of course, I’m lumping all celebs and entertainment figures together unfairly; there are many out there who do think before they speak. But there also seem to be quite a few who don’t. We can now count Giuliana Rancic among them.