The following review was written by Tonyisha Harris, a Chicago high school student, as part of Columbia College Chicago's Columbia Links journalism program for high school students. RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia Links to mentor these students and to give them a platform for their writing. Read more about the program here. You can also find student reviews of "Central Park Five" here, and student reviews of "American Promise" here and here.–Editor
Directed by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry
3 out of 4 stars
"I don't like to be called black because I'm not black," comments a young African American girl at the beginning of "Dark Girls". "Dark Girls" is a documentary exploring colorism and the perceptions darker-skinned women face not only in America but around the world.
After the heartbreaking remark made by the young girl, a slideshow of African American women is shown, accompanied by soft piano music. The music creates a suspenseful atmosphere as the pictures explore the origins of colorism: slavery. Experts dive into the problems of how whites made blacks inferior. But instead of focusing mainly on how whites despised blacks, the film takes viewers into blacks being divided against their own race because of how dark their skin was.
Accompanied by explanations, pictures from the time of slavery show how the slaves were divided. Slaves who were a lighter color worked in the house but darker slaves worked in the fields. Slaves wanted to be in the house. They wanted to pass the "Paper Bag Test"; if they were lighter than a paper bag they were as close to looking white as they could be. The pictures and comparisons between slaves made me remember when my friends and I would put our arms together and compare skin colors. We didn't want to be the darkest one in the group; we wanted to be the lightest.
Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry do a great job of evoking memories of colorism, a prejudice carried sometimes unconsciously. They prove this by filming a test with a four-year-old black girl. Pictures of the same girl, with her skin lightened and darkened in different pictures, are put in front of her. When asked who is the smartest and prettiest, she picks the lightest girl, and when asked who the dumbest and ugliest girl is she picks the darkest one. Duke doesn't just show how people are prejudiced against their own race because of skin tone, but makes a connection to how these females feel about themselves. That four-year-old girl is only a little bit lighter than the darkest girl she thought was dumb and ugly. Is that how she will grow to see herself?
The film uses adolescents and young kids to reinforce the idea that colorism and low self-esteems begin when we are young. In a scene early in the film, we hear the sound of water being run for a bath and see bleach being poured into the tub after a black teenage girl explains that she hated her color to the point she'd beg her mom to pour bleach in the water.
Duke interviews women about their feelings, asking dark-skinned women how they feel about themselves. He also interviews men on the subject of dark-skinned women. Some of the males interviewed came off as ignorant; it makes me wonder why the director chose to keep these interviews in the film. The interviews are in support of dating dark-skinned women, but the way the males present their reasoning does not help the cause. However, the male opinion helps balance the film so it isn't just females 'bickering'.
You might expect the film to be focused only on African Americans, so it is shocking when a Korean-American woman shares her story. She explains that she grew up in Hollywood, CA, and was considered light, but when she moved to Korea everyone was pale and she was the dark one.
But Duke and Berry fail to present a light-skinned woman in defense of dark-skinned women. The film does show white or light-skinned women saying they like tans because it makes them feel pretty and hides imperfections, which shows that some girls wants to be dark. The film could've added more stories from them or what they've seen happen to a dark-skinned female.
Duke and Berry do accomplish a cheery tone, with dark-skinned women finding acceptance within themselves or from others, the others often being white males or people from other countries. The film suggests that one way to end colorism is to teach children at a young age to be comfortable and proud of their skin; skin color doesn't define them.
Tonyisha Harris, a junior at Whitney Young High School Chicago, is a fellow of the Columbia Links journalism and news literacy program housed at Columbia College Chicago.