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.”

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

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Yoaye

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.

Yoaye

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.

lady doll
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… Read more »
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[…] with darker skin tones) was holding back darker-skinned Black actresses in Hollywood. As BGLH reports, Washington was initially confused about what colorism was, asking the interviewer, Smriti Mundhra, […]

ismenia
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… Read more »
Brian
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… Read more »
Sonja

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!!!

Sonja

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!!!

C

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.

christinanolanXD

Fool.

Itumeleng

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.

Wink

That’s okay. Maybe Denzel just isn’t your type. Nothing wrong with that.

Lolalao

Nope. My mother is right there with you.

Noriecreates

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!

Lolalao

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.

Roiyar

I need him to explain people like Beyonce and Rhianna getting major roles. Is that because they are exeptional actresses? I think he got lost under the illusion of inclusion myth that so many get sucked into when they become successful. To the point that…he stopped looking at the obvious things going on around him.

Wink

One reason – in addition to colorism – that Beyonce and Rihanna get acting roles is because they have a large and devoted fan base that will go see them in a movie, just because they are in it.

Hollywood is all about making money. They know the Beyhive will come out to support Beyonce, so it increases her chances of getting a role.

Penny

And what helped to bolster their careers and that fan base? Not singing alone.?

zanalies .

Exactly!

Mimi

Denzel got to be the heartthrob for black women and white so he’s not the authority on colorism. Men tend to be oblivious and now that black men are sought after by all races they forgot the struggle, IMO. He makes valid points but it’s kinda 50/50 for me. You definitely need to get better but it’s still very possible that you’ll be passed up for a lighter girl. I’m tired of the topic too so how about everybody act right and stop this nonsense.

nelle

Denzel never once but the words dark skinned and pretty together , he only mentioned it when talking about light skinned girls! I get where he is coming from saying thaat you need to work while you wait, but he cannot just generalize and say dark skinned women do not get role because they are bad actors, that is a ridicuous statement !

Lolalao

Alfre Woodard is a powerful actress. I guess she didn’t/ doesn’t work hard enough by his point of view.

Susie Dean

I hAve a “light daughter”( by her dad) an a chocolate by my now husband. An he’s never given them an excuse not to succeed. Denzel is correct as a dark woman you must work even harder. S chocolate considered ” exotic” whatever that means. Still had to work triple hard to get to where I am. You know the “elephants” in the room. But that doesn’t mean you cannot acknowledge it!

Transbutter

This article is terribly misleading. Denzel never said colorism doesn’t exist. Denzel was simply saying there comes a point in time where we have to stop blaming colorism for not being successful or where we want to be, which is very true. Hell yeah colorism exist but we as a people have always had to work 10x harder to be great. Mediocrity is not an option for us.
This is exactly why I get annoyed when white mediocre artist are compared to our greats. Our icons are great for a reason because they had to be.

Kendra Sawyer

Thank you!!!! I wanted to stop reading the article when the girl tried to explain colorism. Who? What? When he said Colorism? I was ?

AOM
I suspect his response would have been different if he was being interviewed by a white reporter from, say, Entertainment Weekly. But this was BET, so he may have skipped the obvious and went straight to the what are we going to do about it part. One could read his response to BET to be more like, “Psst, hey black people who read/visit BET, I know we know what’s up, and let’s be real — the system blows, so you gotta bust ass. Complaining about it doesn’t get you very far. Work as hard as you can, because that’s the… Read more »
zanalies .

Interesting perspective. Valid point.

ticha st.fleur

Denzel knows what the term colorism means.I dont know…. i feel iffy about his response because there are alot of dark skin actresses with talent but are still overlooked for major roles.Viola is a one of those actresses that have a lot talent but she had to knock on more doors than the lightskin actresses.But at the same time you have to better yourself and work 10 times harder because only your work ethic is going to change your progress,the complaints wont change a thing.

sweetli30
Exactly, right. And yes, he knows good and well what colorism means. But in comparison to ANY black actress, my guess is that Denzel has not had to deal with this issue as much. You know Hwood only allows about 1 or 2 black men at a time to be the “IT” guy….and for years Denzel has almost ONLY been their man. He was IT. If there was going to be black male lead, it was Denzel. So I don’t see him having to battle skint tones with the likes of…..I can’t even think of anyone…Will Smith later, Michael Ealy… Read more »
Seether

Disappointing response? In fact it sounds like a smart response from a very smart man. Get over it, the days of blaming race for everything are coming to a close. Always the left with it’s obsession with made up ISMS.

Noriecreates

Not buying his statement of not knowing what colorism is! He gave a typical fence-straddler response that showed he was more concerned about protecting his own interests than telling the truth about the entertainment industry which he has first hand knowledge of! His stock just went down for me!

Roiyar

Yes and all of know the elephant in the room is that a dark skinned actress does have to work hard for a role that people will never consider for simply because they see a lighter skin actress in that role. Call it what it is. We are still under the paper bag system of selection. Otherwise we would have had more darker skinned actresses and entertainers in all realms. You skin color never dictated your talent. EVER!!!!!

Benita

He didn’t say that.

G.l. Tibbs

I like Denzel, BUT why is he the authority of colorism as it relates to actresses? Perhaps ask Viola.

R.Cola

Ok, I think the title of this is misleading. He’s not saying it doesn’t exist. He’s saying that Because it exists, you have to work 10x harder if you want a spot. He’s not coddling or giving a feel-good response. At the end of the day, these things are true, life aint fair. But you can’t use that as an excuse to stop moving, to stop progressing. You gotta keep moving forward.

deyna
I don’t agree. I think the article is a direct response to what he actually said not what you’re interpreting him to say. I’m sure he THINKS he is saying try harder but in actuality he is dismissing the reason people HAVE TO try harder. Denzel said: “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.”… Read more »
R.Cola
My rebuttal is within your response. From your own quote Denzel said: “there really isn’t a lot of opportunities and roles given to people that look like Viola. That is a larger problem not an individual problem. Viola’s “spot” is already taken so hollywood is very likely going to look over other people like her and pass on them for someone that looks more ambiguous, light skinned, mainstream, appealing etc.” He’s literally acknowledging that there is a dichotamy between dark/light experiences. But instead of Chastising a biased industry (because it IS THEIR industry at the end of the day). He… Read more »
deyna

Respectability politics.
Internalized racism.

These uphold the oppressive standard they don’t challenge them.

Guest

I was about to write something VERY similar. I feel like the title’s misleading too.

Robinson Kyeshia

Exactly!

BlueWisdom
I don’t know… I think that he could’ve used better wording, but I think his point is that anyone, no matter what color, who relies on looks is at a disadvantage… especially in Hollywood. Add on top of that the notion that historically, that women of color no regardless of hue have to be on point and do more to get half as much. I don’t think he’s necessarily denying that colorism exists, but instead that they should focus on what will move them forward… and Viola Davis is just an example that it is possible. Racism/predjudice isn’t going anywhere… Read more »
Fefe
I like his response….I am tired of the complexion game. Truly sick of it….I am a black woman period. We have to fight no matter what hue we are within the shade of black. We fight within and we battle outside. There is approximately over 3000 variation of blackness when it comes to our skin. I love Angel Bassett and Halie Berry and I don’t care about there skin colour… or Hattie or Lena. We must stop this unproductive talk… For one reason… it diminishes our talent, our worth. I root for my sister’s not their colour. And we are… Read more »
G_Money1
It doesn’t matter if you’re light or dark, the roles for black women pale in comparison to those available to white women. This is largely due to the fact that black actors usually have non black women as their leading ladies. Denzel, Will, Jamie, etc are all guilty of this many times over. They claim this is due to the need to cross over and reach a broad audience but big stars like Will and Denzel have already crossed over. People of all races come to see their movies no matter who else is in the movie with them. To… Read more »
benita

Except for like two of Denzel’s movies all his leading ladies are black. Except for about three or four or Will Smith’s movies all his leading ladies are black also.

La Bandita

Denzel and Will each faught to have Black leading actresses. The first thing the main stream media want to do is replace the Black women with a White Latina and replace the Black kids with mixed raced kids. Certainly replace the black little girl with a mix race child and leave the son dark or brown skin. The family never matches.

Lolalao

I’m not feeling his answer, sorry. He should’ve given that dang AWARD back. That year was truly an insult..Smh The black women have to deal with colorism and racism..FREEFORM is a platform for white young actress to break into the industry.

*Look at Alfre Woodard! She does not get the recognition she deserves, he can miss me.

FeeFee

Denzel is just showing his age. Sorry. He can’t comprehend that indeed honing your craft, working harder, longer, better and etc. being a necessity for darker skin actresses, while other actresses can coast on being light-skinned is indeed problematic.

It happens to the best of us.

TyaD

Based on his years of experience in Hollywood and prior commentary, I think that he understands colorism. This may have been a missed opportunity Also, I do understand the point he is making. Colorism exists but talent is a factor also. Work twice as hard.

lola
The fact that people STILL believe our progress is only a matter of working hard is an indication that nothing has changed. These racist implications: black people are just lazy, they just don’t work hard like whites, is the go2 smokescreen line for deniers, enablers,& racists. Denzel’s advantage as a man despite being older and black is a fact he will not acknowledge because he wants to keep working in White Hollywood. Any black man who talks to their dark-skinned daughter the way he does has NO business discussing the struggles of black women. Good luck to Denzel getting a… Read more »
La Bandita

Maybe this is he real point. Black and White men shouldn’t talk on these issues until they are better educated. White men created the issue so of course they dont want to acknowledge and Black men benefit so they want to keep it alive.

Aliceki

I completely agree with Denzel, there’s nothing that you can change in industry by complaining. The only thing you can do is get better and better, I don’t understand why that’s dissapointing, maybe because its reality. I’m an aspiring actress, and if I have to work harder and be better than so be it, but I’m not letting anyone else dictate my path but me.

tags03
I feel like his comments aren’t any different than what he said to his daughter in 2012…the same thing my mother has been telling me my whole life… you are a dark skinned girl and so you’ll have to be 1000x better than the rest…work harder…. be smarter when everyone else is mediocre… there comes a time when your talent cannot be denied… I will say black men can be less empathetic with this issue…not to say it doesn’t happen to them (hell its rooted in our history) but with society placing so much emphasis on beauty it tends to… Read more »
Karminia
I have to say, what Denzel was saying sort of sounded to me like one of those hypocritical 90s speeches during those years where multiculturalism was on the agenda in America, the same multiculturalism they retracted from in the 2000s where they started re-segregating and acting like black people outside of black productions (or the “black universe”) didn’t or barely existed. It’s the type of speech where they blame everything on the oppressed instead of the system that oppresses them. I wounder what kind of racial views he internalized to be able to accept and not criticize the fact that… Read more »
G_Money1

Not to mention that his roles might just dry up if he bites the hand that feeds him. The Hollywood system feeds him and not black actresses so who else is he going to put the blame on?

Karminia
He could have simply said that cutting it in the movie industry is hard period, and that with the number of roles available for women of color they have to work that much harder and keep trying no matter what shade they are. No one would have been offended. There was no need to bring down the people who are discriminated against in that industry. Lack of talent, and connections exists everywhere and that will determine whether you make it or break it but the number of good roles and high-budget movies does affect the visibility of women of color… Read more »
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