Exploring Colorism and Identity in Early Hollywood Films

This article was written by Kye Farrow for the NMAAHC at the Smithsonian. We do not own any content in this article. Click here to read the original article.


Colorism, the discrimination against individuals based on their skin tone, has long influenced the opportunities available to African Americans. In response to this discrimination, historically, African Americans often found alternate ways to present themselves. Some actors moved outside the mainstream film industry while others played into stereotypes. The creation of race movies for and by African Americans in the early 1900s sought to offer more complex narratives and roles. The various ways African Americans responded to discrimination shaped the early film industry and documented a legacy of unequal representation.

 Colorism not only occurs in different racial or ethnic groups but can happen within them as well. Colorism differs from racism in that racism is based on beliefs about the racial inferiority of a group. Racism can include systemic inequality, prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts. Colorism is thought to only have negative implications for individuals of darker skin tone. However, lighter-skinned African Americans have been victims of colorism as well. The effects of colorism have proven to be damaging to the identity of black Americans by leading to internalized oppression in the black community. Moreover, the concept of identity, and how a person presents oneself in order to make a living, is not only an issue that has historically hindered black actors and actresses, but everyday black Americans as well.

The historic absence of African American actors and actresses in leading roles has been evident throughout the history of Hollywood films. When African Americans were cast, lighter skinned actors were preferred for more prominent roles. Roles for darker skinned individuals generally played on or amplified racist stereotypes. This placed both lighter and darker skinned African Americans in a situation where many felt as though they could not simply be black without being categorized. This identity crisis caused many lighter skinned African Americans to make attempts at passing for white in public settings in order to compete for more opportunities, which led to increased tensions in the black community.

In Langston Hughes’ 1934 collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, one recurring theme is passing. When passing, black people with light skin tones would be considered as white based on their physical appearance. Passing became increasingly common during the Great Depression. In a stifled economy where it was difficult for whites to find jobs, African Americans found this task to be especially difficult.

Some African Americans passed for white as a means to either provide for their families, make a decent living, or to get a glimpse of white privilege. In Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks the narrator of the short story “Passing” says, “Ma, some white people certainly don’t like colored people, do they? (If they did, then I wouldn’t have to be passing to keep my good job)." He continues, “When I look at the colored boy porter who sweeps out the office, I think that that’s what I might be doing if I wasn’t light-skinned enough to get by” (Hughes 52). While the stories in Hughes’ collection were fictional, they were certainly based on the experiences of African Americans in the United States at this time. The story of the Johnston family highlights the trials and tribulations of a family struggling with hiding their true identity in order to be accepted into white society.

For those who were not light-skinned enough to pass for white, many African Americans turned to other means of altering their skin tone. Oftentimes, even lighter-skinned actresses and actors would have to have their makeup done in a way to make them appear even lighter. While advertisements for race films promoted the fact that there would be an “all colored cast,” lobby card advertisements often made African American actors and actresses not only appear lighter skinned, but almost white. The action of something as simple as lightening an actor’s skin tone proved to have serious implications. As black-owned theaters grew, people across the country were exposed to these exaggerated films and advertisements. Many young children and teenagers of darker complexion began to think that it was “bad,” “evil,” or “dirty” to have dark skin, so some turned to harmful chemicals for the purposes of lightening their skin.

As white and a few lighter skinned actors and actresses were the stars of most Hollywood films in the early 1900s, darker skinned individuals had few opportunities to perform on screen. When they did, it was primarily to play on racist stereotypes and preconceived notions about black people. Lincoln Perry, considered by many to be the first African American movie star, is a prime example of how Hollywood often exploited darker skinned individuals to tell a false narrative of how all black people looked and acted. Perry was best known for his stage persona Stepin Fetchit, an incomprehensible, laughing, dancing fool. In real life, Perry was an intelligent man who used the demand for black foolishness and inferiority on the big screen to make a living.

Not every dark-skinned individual wanted or was able to pass for white. Many black actors and actresses, whether they wanted to be or not, were subjected to skin appearance alterations, including blackface. Blackface is the use of makeup to exaggerate skin tone and facial features used in the entertainment industry to present a stereotypical and racist image. In The Song of Freedom, a movie starring Paul Robeson, the use of blackface darkens the cast’s skin tones throughout the film, including Robeson himself. The goal of these films was to portray African Americans as uncivilized, savage and comical beings.

As African American audiences grew tired of seeing themselves portrayed in such stereotypical and racist ways, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Between the 1910s and 1950s, African American movie theaters grew in popularity by featuring race movies. Race movies were produced for all black audiences and often featured an all-black cast. Race movies made it a priority to combat the stereotypical roles usually made available to black actors and actresses. Instead, they specialized in portraying black actors and actresses in a way that black viewers could actually relate to.

While hundreds of race films were produced in the early 20th century, they were excluded from mainstream acclaim. Although African Americans responded in creative and resourceful ways to discrimination during this period, colorism in Hollywood remains a pressing issue well into the 21st century. Black actors and actresses still find it difficult to find suitable acting roles and opportunities. In the last few years, the discussion about colorism in the film industry has picked up pace across the nation. To understand the tension surrounding African Americans in the film industry and Hollywood, it is important to understand the history of this relationship. Productions such as Black Panther show that we have come a long way in race relations in the film industry, but we certainly have much more work to do.

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What is colorism and how is it different from racism?

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What were the social and economic benefits of having lighter skin? 

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What roles did dark skinned black people typically play and how did this perpetuate colorist stereotypes?


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