(By Yolanda Chu, Queen’s University)
Moonlight’s Best Picture win at this year’s Academy Awards, brought it praise over its subversive subject matter and fresh perspective . The film follows Chiron, a dark skinned black boy, throughout his life as he discovers and comes to terms with his homosexuality. As it is the first LGBT film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, many critics have focused their commentary on Moonlight as a piece of queer cinema. However, Moonlight is not important solely because it tells the story of a gay man; it is especially relevant because Chiron is also black.
More often than not, white skin is unconsciously heralded as the defining standard of beauty. This isn’t surprising considering how global media continues to shower us with images of glamourized pale skin. Skin tones are associated with social and economic status; those with lighter skin are given better opportunities and are better represented in literature and cinema.
Since its inception, the camera has had a “racist” history of prioritizing the depictions of lighter and paler skin over the depictions of dark skin (David Smith). In the U.S, recent statistics show that “with some exceptions, most Americans prefer lighter to darker skin aesthetically, normatively, and culturally. Filmmakers, novelists, advertisers, modeling agencies, matchmaking websites—all demonstrate the power of a fair complexion, along with straight hair and Eurocentric facial features to appeal to Americans.” (JL Hochschild) In American literature, “color defines a black person more than ethnicity”, and that when a black person is described as “Mulatto”—having mixed white and black ancestry—they have access to better careers, higher education and more opportunities than someone with a darker complexion (Denielle Jackson). A 1960’s survey reported dark skinned people as having greater social and economical disadvantages (Hochschild).
The importance of lighter skin was often seen in classic Hollywood cinema. Melodramas from the 1950’s regularly depicted the “Tragic Mulatto,” a harmful and offensive stereotype. Biracial black women, “Mulatta”, were only depicted as beautiful and desirable because of their lighter skin and white ancestry (Jane Gaines, 6). At the same time, all-black musical films such as Carmen Jones (1954) used exclusively lighter skinned actresses to play the lead roles. Even in the popular Hollywood film West Side Story (1961), Natalie Wood, a white actress, was used to portray Maria, a Puerto Rican character because it was more acceptable than casting an actress with appropriate ethnic features and darker skin.
Black characters, especially those who were darker skinned, were regularly sidelined in classical Hollywood (if they were even shown onscreen at all). Even to this day, the media rarely portrays dark skinned actors in a positive light, or feature well-rounded dark skinned characters in movies. In literature, the word ’black’ is associated with uncleanness and evil while “white’ is associated with goodness and purity.
As someone who grew up in China, I have been exposed to an environment where lighter skin is explicitly touted as the highest standard of beauty. The practice of skin bleaching is popular in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa where the populations exhibit darker skin tones. Advertisements for beauty products in China constantly glamourize “milk white” skin to persuade its audience to purchase products that lighten skin (Marianne Bray). According to recent research conducted by multiple Canadian scholars, “whiteness” or having white skin is indeed considered an important element in constructing female beauty in Asian cultures. (Eric Li, 444). The politics of skin tones differ slightly in different parts of the world due the differences in the racial power dynamic. However, one thing is universal: pale skin is desirable across many cultures, and it is often associated with the idea of beauty.
Considering that European and Asian cinema influenced the director of Moonlight, I couldn’t help but reflect on how skin tone is depicted across cinema. When I think of characters that are universally acknowledged as beautiful and humanized, I think of the blonde haired women in the films of Jean Luc Godard; I think of the porcelain skinned girls in Neon Demon (2016); I think of Angela Hayes laying in sea of roses in American Beauty (1999). I think about all the art-house films that consciously or subconsciously perpetrate the notion that only white skin is beautiful. Even when whiteness isn’t associated with goodness or purity, it is an intrinsic part of the concept of beauty.
The narrative of Moonlight revolves around the experience of a character with intersecting identities. Chiron’s blackness is just as important as his sexuality. At the end of the film, we see him standing in the moonlight, his skin giving off a blue glow. As I looked into Chiron’s eyes on screen, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen dark skin being romanticized and humanized within a cinematic context.
The association of whiteness with beauty and blackness with impurity contributes to the dehumanization of black people on a global level. In America’s cultural context, the hierarchy of desirable skin tones is connected to the systemic socioeconomic disadvantages that people face in all different walks of life. Cinema, literature, and other forms of media not only reflect, but aid in reinforcing these power dynamics. Through its historic Academy Awards win, Moonlight has been given a new platform to influence how black people are portrayed in cinema . In addition to highlighting a less frequently seen perspective, the subversion of how blackness is depicted in cinema allows Moonlight to present dark skinned people as sympathetic human beings. If more films continue to subvert our conditioned perceptions of white and black skin, we will have a chance of countering the dehumanization and marginalization of dark skin through the very vehicle that is currently helping to perpetuate it.
Bray, Marianne CNN. Cable News Network, 15 Mar. 2002. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.
Eric P.H. Li, Hyun Jeong Min, Russell W. Belk, and Junko Kimura, Shalini Bahl. “Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures.” Association for Consumer Research 35 (n.d.): 444-49. Web.
Gaines, Jane. “”The Scar of Shame”: Skin Color and Caste in Black Silent Melodrama.” Cinema Journal 26.4 (1987): 3. Web.
Hochschild JL, Weaver V. “The Skin Color Paradox and American Racial Order”Social Forces. 2007;86 (2).
Jackson, Denielle. “African American women: the roles skin color plays in literature.” LITR 5731 Seminar in Multicultural Literature. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.
Smith, David. “‘Racism’ of early colour photography explored in art exhibition.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 25 Jan. 2013. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.