By examining the portrayals of dark-skinned Black women in movies like Candyman (1992), Blacula (1972), Us (2019) and shows like Lovecraft Country (2020), we can see how colorism is a gendered issue as well as racialized one. To mitigate the ambiguity that accompanies discussions of “light-skin” and “dark-skin,” I use the American paper bag to orient my understanding of the two categories since this is the historical tool by which privilege and opportunity has been distributed amongst Black freed people. Since the concept is a direct byproduct of White Supremacy and racism, the Black standard of beauty and femininity tends to abide by a Eurocentric model by glorifying lighter skin & eyes and narrow facial features in women. This leads to the codification of dark skin and wide features as symbols of “ultra-masculinity,” since the differentiation between perfect Black men and women reinforces the binary of “dainty” women and rugged men. With works that feature both types of female characters alongside each other, we see how the use of dark-skinned women as props, aggressors, and punching bags in Blacula and Candyman is starkly contrasted by their light-skinned counterparts who are damsels, love interests, and more valuable human beings.
Both films mark their dark-skinned female characters with poverty, exaggerated Blaccents, and aggressive personalities to hijack their sensibility as humans and mitigate any pathos they would otherwise elicit from the audience. In Blacula, Juanita’s occupation as a cab driver is contrasted by the middle-class lifestyle of Tina and her sister who are seen attending an upscale club and residing in a fully furnished, decent-sized apartment. Meanwhile, Candyman’s Anne-Marie is seen living in the filthy, crime-ridden housing projects of Cabrini-Green while her light-skinned counterpart, Bernadette, is a well-dressed college student with a friend who lives in a decent-sized furnished apartment. The long-standing tradition of criminalizing impoverished people makes the indication of the large wage-gap between these two character pairs effective in devaluing them as individuals. These classist endeavors are only solidified by the directors’ use of exaggerated Blaccents to characterize Juanita and Anne-Marie’s low intelligence because, despite the fact that African American vernacular is not inherently flawed or inferior to “standard” American English, it is still used as divisive tactic to further alienate these particular characters. Juanita is one of the only people who speaks that way in the entire film while the dialect of Anne-Marie and the two dark-skinned janitors also sticks out in Candyman since their drawl is so exaggerated compared to other characters like the little boy, Jake, and the gangster leader from the bathroom assault who both have more of a subtle twang.
These acting choices also equate their capacity to feel loss, pain, and concern with pure aggression. In my blog post about Candyman, I explain that,
“For both [damsel] characters, their traumatic experiences are supplemented by subtle, yet dramatic acting choices that allow them to display their sorrow while keeping their humanity and dainty femininity intact. Meanwhile, when we see the victimization of a dark-skin Black woman character, Anne-Marie, her behavior is absolutely belligerent.” (Nwonye)
The juxtaposition of Bernadette’s ever-present terror during her encounters with the housing project and every Black person she meets with the wrath of Anne-Marie towards the assumed killer of her dog and child is nearly identical to that of Juanita versus Tina. The haunting image of vampire Juanita advancing toward the detective is made the most horrifying scene of the entire film. Despite being the most unlikely victim who had nothing to do with the Blacula case and only met him due to his negligence while crossing the street, her terror-inducing appearance as a blood-thirsty monster makes her murder a necessary evil. Conversely, Tina’s death as a vampire who was privy to the same behavior is not only an accident but a tragedy that is highlighted by the instant regret of all the characters involved.
At least in Candyman, the use of colorist representation is distributed evenly across all the dark-skinned characters to thoroughly demonize Blackness as a whole (Nwonye). So, I suppose the colorist casting decisions there were nothing personal towards the dark-skinned female characters. Perhaps we could even consider it a win that all of them – Anne-Marie and the black janitors – managed to survive the entire film. But only because they were so insignificant that they weren’t worth the trouble of killing off anyways.
Now, I would be remiss to ignore the monumental strides made by Lovecraft Country to give their dark-skinned female leads more nuance. Ruby, Hippolyta, and Diana are given very distinct character arcs, made emotionally vulnerable, protected by other characters at some point in the series, and genuinely valued by their loved ones, which is more than I can say about the dark-skinned female characters in either of the previous films. They are extremely important to also furthering the plot. Hippolyta’s brilliance and inter-dimensional travel made her useful when obtaining the Book of Names and saving Dee’s life. Ruby was able to leverage her relationship with Christina to help Letti & Tic with their various endeavors by giving them magical intel and attempting to steal some of Christina’s DNA to sabotage her plan to gain immortality. Meanwhile, Diana is a talented artist, has control over the Black shadow monster, and is the deliverer of the final blow to Christina’s limp body. But, despite the laundry-list of everything the series did to instill value in these lovable characters, it still pales in comparison to that of the light-skinned leading lady who, as the love interest of the main protagonist, is granted main character status. This status is most evident through the “bubble” of security placed around her that generally protects her from harm. Cate Young, in her article, “Why So Many Black Horror Films Are Horrors Themselves,” points out that,
“Even internally, the show’s issues with colorism and gender undercut its presumed assertions about race, history, and trauma. The story’s most violent and repressed Black male character was also its darkest-skinned. Its dark-skinned female characters were brutalized and killed.” (Young)
Aside from the literal invincibility granted by spells that prevented Letti from burning alive with Tic’s dark-skinned great grandmother, falling to her death from a large building, having her house invaded by violent policemen, and Tic’s own protection spell that she benefited from when he shielded her from the shadow monster, we also see this same invincibility present itself even without magical enchantment.
During Tic and Letti’s first encounter with the monsters, she was able to escape relatively unharmed since she was initially saved by Tic who guided her to the abandoned house where they took shelter. During her visit to the haunted basement of her house where both the dark-skinned female medium and Tic become violently possessed by a demon, Letti elicits the protection of the tortured spirits of the home who help her exorcize it before it could seriously hurt her.
Much like the grandmother and the medium, our main dark-skinned female characters seem to bear the brunt of the beating as well. In Hippolyta’s case, she gets beaten repeatedly during her stay in the “warrior” dimension, nearly electrocuted to death when she holds the time portal open for Tic, his father, and Letti, and is jumped by a group of White townspeople during the final battle at the mansion. Ruby repeatedly undergoes the painful process of wearing and removing her White woman suit, is ultimately murdered in the end, and temporarily possessed by Christina. Dee gets viciously attacked by the twin apparitions that finally reach her after days of torment, temporarily becomes one of them, and then loses her drawing arm in the process. Meanwhile, Letti’s major beatings are as follows: 1) her rough treatment from the arresting officer who threw her around in his van after the house party and 2) her fight with Christina while she possessed Ruby’s body, both of which were singular events that are outnumbered by those of Ruby and Hippolyta and left her with no serious injuries like Diana or Ruby.
A similar mulling effect takes place in Us with the two dark-skinned Black female leads, Adelaide and her daughter, Zora. Unlike the other films and Lovecraft Country, this cast lacks any light-skinned counterparts to contrast them with since the film already does so with their doppelgängers, Red and Umbrae. Admittedly, this set-up is primarily responsible for their three-dimensionality as characters. Zora is, arguably, the character most comfortable with herself since she often retreats inward for comfort when she grows tired of the people around her. Meanwhile, Adelaide is the least comfortable since she’s constantly reminded of what she’s done everytime she looks in the mirror and knows that she doesn’t really belong in this world. The film inversely parallels this juxtaposition by making Zora have the least physical interactions with her double throughout the film since she’s able to defeat Umbrae less than halfway through. Conversely, Adelaide has the most interaction since she spends most of the time being tormented and outsmarted by Red, until she finally takes her down in the end. Despite this, it’s still worth noting how the film’s degradation of dark-skinned women is generally oriented through its use of the “strong Black woman” archetype to portray these characters. Adelaide, her mother, and her daughter are all burdened with the responsibility of taking care of everything: looking after themselves and their entire community while also surveying and managing catastrophic events around them. In the beginning of the movie when young Adelaide enjoys a trip to Santa Cruz, her mother is basically watching her by herself while the father immerses himself in the carnival games. Even after Adelaide body-switched at the mirror house, the mother is the only one invested in rehabilitating her to become the daughter she remembers. Adelaide and Zora exhibit these traits throughout most of the film since they’re the main protectors and strategists of the family. They pick up the slack from the incompetent father and the relatively vulnerable, young son, Jason, who both struggle to defend themselves against the Tethered (especially the father). Even Adelaide’s doppelgänger fits this narrative since she was responsible for organizing and enacting the entire Tethered Uprising by herself.
Additionally, this same character duality throughout the film is what effectively demonizes both of its dark-skinned female leads. Red is already made the villain throughout most of the film because, even though she has a right to be vengeful towards Adelaide, she’s also chosen to wreak havoc on dozens of innocent people who really had nothing to do with her incarceration underground. Meanwhile, the plot twist revealed at the end of the film makes us side-eye our “heroine,” Adelaide, because she not only stole Red’s life but also continued to live it without ever trying to go back and help her escape or at least inform someone else who could’ve helped her. So, our vision of Adelaide as the benevolent victor is also destroyed.
As we can see with Us, even when light-skinned comparisons are removed from the casting line-up, we can still see how dark-skinned female representation is often handled differently than others. Even their male counterparts of the same complexion category. This is most evident when discussing the juxtaposition between the style and grace of Black villains like Candyman and Blacula versus the jittery, haunting demeanor of Red. Both male villains are portrayed as otherworldly entities who embody the sophistication and dignity of their previously human selves even as they mercilessly slaughter people. This denotes the distinguished lifestyles they used to lead during their inhabitants in the “elite” class when they were human. Candyman was a skilled artist with a rich father who brought him up in “polite society” (Narcisse). Blacula was an “euridite, intelligent” African prince with diplomatic power to schedule an official meeting with Dracula to discuss the state of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (Horror Noire). In addition to their luxurious pasts, the vocal resonance, commanding stage presence, and sexual conflict of these characters add to their allure as aesthetically pleasing figures who are revered for their “gravitas” and sex-appeal (Horror Noire). While these regal characters fit well within what Jordan Peele would consider a “beautiful monster,” Red’s aura is far more unsettling and grotesque (Horror Noire).
This isn’t meant to accuse Jordan Peele of being a colorist, a perpetrator of misogynoir, or a horrible filmmaker because his masterpiece, Us, did a lot more right than it did “wrong.” The intention isn’t to expose any deep-rooted vendetta Peele secretly has against dark-skinned women but, rather, to examine how his film happens to co-exist well with Hollywood’s vendetta since this trend has persisted for years and goes way beyond just the horror genre or film industry. It’s pretty obvious when we show up as mammies, Jezebels, bullies, and human laughing-stalks in shows like The Proud Family, Martin, and The Umbrella Academy. But it’s even more clear during the times that we’re not included at all or blatantly erased when our dark-skin icons are “light-washed” like Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Claire from My Wife And Kids, Storm from the X-Men comics. So when I evaluate the history of violence and vitriol towards dark-skinned women throughout film and media history, I’m forced to grapple with the question that dozens of film critics have posed before me: is it better to be misrepresented on screen or not at all?
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. Directed by Xavier Neal-Burgin, performance by Ashlee Blackwell, Jordan Peele, Keith David, Rachel True, Robin R. Means Coleman, Tananarive Due, and Tony Todd. Stage 3 Productions, 2019. Amazon Prime Video.
Narcisse, Evan. “‘Candyman’: Why This Racially Charged Horror Movie Is Scarier Than Ever.” Rollingstone. 31 October, 2018. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/why-candyman-is-scarier-than-ever-749776/amp/
Nwonye, Ifeanyi. “Candyman Ain’t Sweet.” Delta Kappa Alpha – Delta Chapter. 10 November, 2020. https://www.ucladka.org/cinejournal/candyman-aint-sweet
Nwonye, Ifeanyi. “Us – Mama’s Boys.” Delta Kappa Alpha – Delta Chapter. 5 November, 2020. https://www.ucladka.org/cinejournal/us-mamas-boys
Young, Cate. “Why So Many Black Horror Films Are Horrors Themselves.” The American Prospect. 20 November, 2020.