‘Maybe You’re Not Good Enough’: Denzel Washington Gives Disappointing Response When Asked How Colorism Affects Dark-Skinned Actresses

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?
SM: 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
SM: Exactly
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 Dramasaid 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.”

Black Girl With Long Hair

Black Girl With Long Hair

Leila, founder of Black Girl with Long Hair (April 2008). Social media, pop culture and black beauty enthusiast. bell hooks' hair twin...

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55 thoughts on “‘Maybe You’re Not Good Enough’: Denzel Washington Gives Disappointing Response When Asked How Colorism Affects Dark-Skinned Actresses

  1. The fact that he didn’t know the meaning of the term colorism is unsettling. But to say that people who feel aggrieved should stop complaining is insulting! We should always voice our concern and displeasure over being mistreated. Isn’t that how doors were opened for him?? The mantra of everyone should be to work harder as a personal ethic!

    • I guess that’s why he didn’t win that Golden Globe ..#shade I thought of this interview as soon as he didn’t win.

  2. I must be the only black woman who never saw the appeal of Denzel Washington.

    Give me Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy all the way. And TJ Holmes of CNN.

  3. I don’t see the issue, because the question wasn’t posed correctly it was just a generalization about the industry. Mr. Washington questioned the interviewer about what they were trying to ask because it was just general. Is the interviewer asking about Color-ism w/n the black community, or racism within Hollywood. I get a sense Washington sees color-ism as an issue w/n the black community and racism a problem within Hollywood just saying.

  4. True beauty is found in the heart of the one who made us. God loves us as He made our color. Look to Him as everyday He reminds me that I am dark skinned because He loves the part of me that looks just like him. He loves the child that resembles her father. So do not let this world define your beauty for as God says such is foolish talk. Love you God so much!!!

  5. One more point: God made all of us in seven days, deciding when we would be born, where we would be born and what we would look like; so we know He made no mistakes. Satan because of his enmity with God separated us and made us see ourselves as separate races of varying hues. Anythig that continues that line of separation must be challenged for it is god not man that is our only creator and life force. So yes stand up and challenge racism and any other ism that separates us from God!!!

  6. Seriously What is wrong with all of you all. he gave a GREAT answer. We need to stop looking at race and color. By always looking for definition and why we are being discriminated is upholding racism. Denzel is RIGHT. All he is saying, if you want to achieve something you just have to work hard for it. If disregard the color of your skin you will see that you will be more focused on achieving what you want. I preach this ALL the time and I am darker that Viola Davis and I have achieved everything today in my life, by just simply laying out a goal and work hard to achieve it. DENZEL I Love you even more for this. Dumb questions on color, who the hell cares. WE KEEP RACISM ALIVE by always giving it meaning.

    • Highlighting that discrimination exists is not upholding racism. That is the most idiotic asinine thing I have ever heard of

      Black people work hard. They are more likely to work multiple jobs or to work while going to college. Dark skinned black women especially are discriminated against. If I have to work 3 or 4 times as hard to make it, that’s a problem. That’s like asking me a basketball player to win MVP or a championship on a broken or sprained ankle. Possible but not likely. The dark skin women I know have spent their entire lives being spoken to and treated differently. Just the minor things. It’s frustrating. Why can’t we just set the standard that NO one should be treated this way and stop looking for a way to pretend it doesn’t exist

  7. Pingback: Why I have to lovingly disagree with Denzel Washington’s colorism comments – Jenn M. Jackson

  8. You see I understand why this young lady is doing this magazine I’ve been noticing for years how the boxs (TV) is trying to make the dark skin disappear how all the women that use to be dark are now clay women and men I say clay because that is what they look like now that they have removed the Mellon from their skin to me that’s really sad I no that these people have been brain washed into thinking that is the way to be the old saying the darker the berry the sweeter the juice is really a true thing the darker the skin the more magic you have the most important magic that lighter skinned people don’t have and that is the magic of Youth the darker the skin the younger you stay white people know this that’s why they tan to be dark the problem they have is sun light just like the vampire so for all the people that are shame of their dark skin snap out of the trance and Embrace what you been born with and for this young lady who is doing this I’m looking forward to seeing it. dark skin rule no this

  9. I get what Denzel is saying. And to be nest, I’d rather be Viola than Halle. At the end of it all, Halle will not have an impressive body of work. She is greatly limited as an actress because her looks let her get by with less effort.
    Viola is brilliant in every role, she becomes the character, you can imagine her different characters interacting with each other. She’s in a league of her own.

  10. I get what Denzel is saying. And to be nest, I’d rather be Viola than Halle. At the end of it all, Halle will not have an impressive body of work. She is greatly limited as an actress because her looks let her get by with less effort.
    Viola is brilliant in every role, she becomes the character, you can imagine her different characters interacting with each other. She’s in a league of her own.

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