Denzel Washington recently sat down with BET reporter Smriti Mundhra to discuss his new film Fences. And while the veteran actor is known for dropping pearls of wisdom in the press, he handled a question about colorism in Hollywood with surprising callousness. When Mundhra first posed the question, Washington said he didn’t know the meaning of colorism.
Smriti Mundhra: So there’s a lot of talk about colorism in Hollywood, especially as it related to —
Denzel Washingon: Colorism?
DW: What does that mean?
SM: Um, you know, favoring of like perhaps lighter skinned people versus darker skin
DW: Oh, racism within the race
DW: You mean from the outside in? Or from within?
SM: Um, I think maybe both ways? And especially as it relates to actresses, darker-skinned actresses, and I’m curious to know do you feel that there’s an equivalency with actors with people of color, actors feeling that way, like there’s a certain type of look that’s favored in the industry, or is it harder on women.
Washington begins by pointing to Viola Davis’ critically acclaimed role in Fences as evidence that there is work in the industry for dark-skinned women.
“One of the best roles for a woman of any color in the last, in a good good while or definitely of any movie that I’ve been in, a dark-skinned woman has in this film. So as long as you’re being led by outside forces or just being reactionary then you won’t move forward. You have to continue to get better.”
But things deteriorate when Washington suggests that age, lack of talent and lack of preparation are more likely culprits for dark-skinned women being unable to secure Hollywood roles.
“Like Troy [Washington’s character in Fences], maybe you were just too old. You can say, ‘Oh I didn’t get the part because they gave it to the light-skinned girl’, or you can work, and one day, it might take twenty years, and you can be Viola. The easiest thing to do is to blame someone else, the system. Yeah, well, there’s a possibility, maybe, that you’re not good enough, but it’s easy to say it’s someone else’s fault. But there’s a possibility that you’re not ready and you can still blame it on someone else instead of getting ready.
Viola Davis came up through the theater. She’s a great stage actress. So whatever color you are, whatever hue you are, are you getting better while you’re waiting? Are you getting better while you’re complaining? Are you getting better while you’re not getting cast in what appears to be the light-skinned pretty role because you’re the dark-skinned girl? Well then go get on the stage and keep getting better. You have to grow, you can’t wait for your time to come and go, “Oh now finally!” And now you’re not ready. If you’re gonna run in the Olympics you gotta train for years. You can’t keep saying, “Well it’s just cause they’re discriminating.”
You can watch the video here.
Washington’s comments are surprising because they seem to contradict what he’s said in the past.
At a 2012 Hollywood Reporter actor’s roundtable, Washington fully acknowledged the presence of color discrimination in Hollywood, stating that his dark-skinned daughter Olivia, who is an aspiring actress, would have to work harder than others to excel. At the time his daughter was 21 years old.
“I tell my daughter — she’s at NYU — I say: “You’re black, you’re a woman, and you’re dark-skinned at that. So you have to be a triple/quadruple threat.” I said: “You gotta learn how to act. You gotta learn how to dance, sing, move onstage.” That’s the only place, in my humble opinion, you really learn how to act. I said: “Look at Viola Davis. That’s who you want to be. Forget about the little pretty girls; if you’re relying on that, when you hit 40, you’re out the door. You better have some chops.”
Though Washington referenced Davis in his BET interview, she has certainly not kept quiet about the role colorism has played in her nearly 30-year career, stating just last year that the ‘paper bag test’ is “still very much alive” in Hollywood, with talented dark-skinned actresses often offered roles as “crack addicts and prostitutes.”
“…the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire… And in the history of television and even in film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating [Davis’ character in How to Get Away With Murder] played by someone who looks like me. My age, my hue, my sex. She is a woman who absolutely culminates the full spectrum of humanity our askew sexuality, our askew maternal instincts. She’s all of that, and she’s a dark-skin black woman. Some people who watch TV have acknowledged that and understand that. But I encourage you to search your memory and think of anyone who’s done this. It just hasn’t happened. I hear these stories from friends of mine who are dark-skin actresses who are always being seen as crack addicts and prostitutes.”
Black people are often criticized for talking about structural racism, and characterized as lazy and lacking personal responsibility for pointing out the ways it affects them. The common belief seems to be that we cannot verbally protest racism and colorism while simultaneously taking action against them. We can do one or the other, but never both. Still, many of the black women in Hollywood who have spoken about the lack of diverse black representation are the very ones who are creating new roles and shattering glass ceilings.
Still Davis — the first black woman to win an Emmy for Leading Actress in a Drama — said in a 2015 interview that she won’t stop talking about colorism, even though people are tired of hearing it.
“When people say they’re tired of hearing that, I always say, ‘Okay, well, you give me an example [of progress] and then I’ll stop talking about it. But I’m gonna talk about it until you hear it.”