New short film explores colorism with pain, truth, and love

In ‘Charcoal,’ a Haitian filmmaker squares off with colorism.

A scene from "Charcoal," a short film about colorism. (Screengrab)
A scene from "Charcoal," a short film about colorism. (Screengrab)

When I was born, I was the gray-pink color of most infants; meanwhile, my mother had blemish-free, gorgeous dark skin. A nurse, apparently ignorant to the fact that some babies darken over time, took one look at my newborn complexion and then my mother’s and dared to say, “She’s too light to be your baby — are you sure?”

I did darken up. As a blend of my mother and my father, who is much lighter, I wound up somewhere in between. But even though I’m embarrassed to admit it now, I am guilty of wondering what life would have been like for me if I hadn’t browned up quite as much as I did.

Being drawn to lightness is a facet of colorism — loosely defined as the preference for lighter skin that leads to complexion-motivated prejudice within a racial group. Colorism is a direct consequence of the legacy of slavery and colonialism, an insidious social sin that black and brown people touched by the African diaspora are struggling to dismantle every day. It operates in varying degrees within each country and culture.

Filmmaker Francesca Andre (Credit: Gustavo Azael Torres)

Award-winning Haitian filmmaker Francesca Andre attempts to take on this topic in her new short film, Charcoal, which stars Lorry Francois, Chengu Kargbo, Kweta Henry, Khamaly Bryan, and Heather Smith. In just under six minutes, her characters move through a visceral journey, coming full circle with colorism in three acts: pain, truth, and love.

When the main character in the film — who is played by different actresses at different points in the narrative, and whose name in the film is also Charcoal — rubs her pregnant belly and prays to the heavens that her baby won’t come out dark like her, I knew Andre was talking to me.      

As Charcoal continues to make the festival rounds — it will show this Saturday during the 20th annual Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival, where it has already been awarded Best Short narrative, and at the Yonkers Film Festival from November 3 to 8 — ThinkProgress caught up with Andre to talk more about colorism and the cathartic nature of working on this project.

What inspired you to create Charcoal?

A lot of times, things come to me when I’m dealing with something like depression. Instead of crying out, I will listen to music. I love Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Emeline Michel, and Manno Charlemagne. I put them on and they will guide me very naturally.

I also have a vivid memory of receiving a doll when I was like 12 years old for Christmas from my school. And I remember I brought the doll home and everyone was saying that the doll was ugly because the doll was dark. I just remember not wanting to play with the doll anymore. I didn’t know it was colorism then.

At first [after making the film], I was kind of afraid. How are people going to respond to it? But you know, if someone likes it or don’t like it, at least I know that I’m being true to myself… It takes guts when we create sometimes. At least for me, my desire is for people, women — especially women of color — to look at this film and find some sort of strength, whether for themselves or for other women in their lives. That was kind of my goal.  

Why did you name it Charcoal?

In Creole, the word for charcoal is “chabon” and that’s what they call the skin there. So at the end [the character in the film] says, “Be you, be beautiful, be charcoal.” I could have called it melanin or anything else, but “charcoal” resonated with me more.  

What has your experience been with colorism?

It’s not only about colorism. It’s about self-esteem. It’s about blackness.

If it’s not our skin tone that’s being attacked, it’s our hair. Our hair has always been considered controversial. So for me, it was always all about hair — people saying things like, “Okay, you’re lighter than your cousin, but at least she has finer hair than you.” I wear my hair natural now. I love my hair, but it was a journey to get to where I am now. There were times where I wasn’t afraid to show my natural hair to white folk but had issues around other people of color.

Hearing people say that my father was an ugly man, and that I have some of my father’s features, it’s really just because my father was darker. Things like that. I’ve heard mothers say to their daughters, “Stop playing in the sun, you’re gonna get dark.” These are not isolated things. They happen in everyday conversation. You’ll be getting your hair braided and look at the hands of the lady braiding your hair and see that she’s using some sort of bleaching cream.

When I first went back to Haiti, people were shocked that I didn’t come back with longer hair and that I did not look lighter, because their expectations of America — because of winter — is that you are going to be lighter. And this is how you [start to] perceive beauty.

How does colorism in Haiti compare to colorism in America?  

When you look at the Haitian music videos, a lot of the women tend to be very light, almost looking like they are Hispanic or half Haitian. While here it’s very similar especially if you’re talking about the rap videos. It’s the same colonialism trauma.

There’s also the survival aspect to it that we can’t deny. You can raise a child to accept herself or himself, love, and seek self-love. But there’s still a society that’s against them. The women back home, some of them are really trying to survive.The unemployment rate is so high…It’s not like [these women] can go out there and get a job. So they think by being with a man and taking care of their beauty — and taking care of their beauty means, if they are dark skinned, using the bleaching soap — that that would guarantee them a future. So there’s this survival aspect that some of us here in America don’t have to deal with.

Was working on this project cathartic?

I think [Chengu Kargbo, one of the actresses who portrays Charcoal] especially felt that way. Sometimes when she would finish her lines it would be so intense and we would look at each other and be like, “Oh my god. There is no going back from this. We are doing this.” I couldn’t tell this story and just focus on the pain, because that’s what we do, we take over whatever it is.

Walk me through the different sections of the film.

So we go through the pain and then we go through the truth. And the truth, where we have to face it, is the hardest part — embracing it, getting rid of all of the lies all and of all the nonsense. And that’s when you break the cycle. And then you become unapologetic about everything.

The thing about Charcoal is that it’s internalized colorism. It’s not the dark-skin girl versus the light-skin girl. [In the film] they are teasing [the main character] at a young age, and she becomes the teenager and starts using the soap and wearing lighter makeup — she wants to be accepted. When she becomes pregnant she doesn’t want her child to go through that, and she’s asking God not to let her child look like that. And that’s when you have to face it. It’s the mother’s responsibility.

Which section are you currently in? Would you say love?

Absolutely. I mean don’t get me wrong, there are days when the hair isn’t cooperating. When I see other women who are not where I am, I don’t pass judgement. Everyone has their own journey.

Who is this film for?

It’s for you. It’s for me. It’s for all the daughters, all the mothers, it’s for all of us. I made it for black women.  

How has it been received so far?

So far it feels like people are gravitating toward it.  People have been writing to me, different women, saying thank you for making this film. I think it needs to be out there more. People are really responding to it, I think, because this is the time where we’re having a conversation about healing. You can see on instagram and social media the hashtag “melanin poppin’.” So it’s like, listen, there is a revolution happening. I think this is actually the right time to bring it up. Hopefully this will start conversations, start dialogues, and more women can start telling their stories.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.