The Hollywood casting agency Sande Alessi reportedly issued an “apology” through TMZ regarding their casting call for the film Straight Outta Compton (NWA biopic). Universal Pictures and the filmmakers have also since distanced themselves from the casting call.
Here’s the casting call originally posted on the agency’s Facebook page, then deleted, but not before being transcribed by Gawker:
SAG OR NON UNION CASTING NOTICE FOR FEMALES-ALL ETHNICITIES- from the late 80’s. Shoots on “Straight Outta Compton”. Shoot date TBD. We are pulling photos for the director of featured extras…
SAG OR NON UNION FEMALES – PLEASE SEE BELOW FOR SPECIFIC BREAKDOWN. DO NOT EMAIL IN FOR MORE THAN ONE CATEGORY:
A GIRLS: These are the hottest of the hottest. Models. MUST have real hair – no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies. You can be black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too…
B GIRLS: These are fine girls, long natural hair, really nice bodies. Small waists, nice hips. You should be light-skinned. Beyonce is a prototype here…
C GIRLS: These are African American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave…
D GIRLS: These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone. Character types…
Okay, I’ll give you time to read that over again…
According to TMZ the agency says the casting call was an “innocent mistake,” and that anyone can audition as D Girls, not just dark-skinned African American girls.
As for their A-B-C-D grouping, it’s apparently what they typically use to find different types of people for any project.
In fact, the letter system is apparently common in Hollywood casting in general as a way to rank either attractiveness or importance. Yesha Callahan at The Root writes: “For anyone not familiar with casting and the categories used, in the above post the letters A, B, C, and D are used to rank the extras. ‘A’ means the ‘better-looking’ extras, and ‘D’ stands for the undesirables…”
Now that you know the A through D ranking system is commonly used in Hollywood to measure attractiveness or importance, you might want to scroll back up and review this particular casting call again. Go ahead. The rest of this post will be waiting when you get back.
Colorism in Casting is Common
Sadly, colorism in Hollywood is not limited to just this one particular casting call. Even actresses as famous and successful as Gabrielle Union, Viola Davis, and Alfre Woodard have spoken about the disparities in casting based on skin tone.
In a special “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” these darker skinned actresses briefly discussed being told “You can’t go for that role because that’s for the ‘cute’ black girl.”
ABC News also has a post on skin tone discrimination in Hollywood that includes the perspective of one light skinned actress:
Actress Wendy Raquel Robinson has noticed the difference. “I’ve never been offered, you know, the crackhead or the distressed mother,” she said. “I play the very upscale, educated young lady,” Robinson said. “I do have some peers that are a lot darker than myself. They don’t get the opportunities.”
If women who looked like Gabrielle Union, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Tyra Banks, or Naomi Campbell auditioned for Straight Outta Compton, they’d be limited to D roles only (maybe Tyra could squeak by in a C role) no matter how gorgeous they are.
But this has bigger implications than who gets cast as “pretty” or “unattractive” characters.
Colorism reduces earning potential for dark skinned actresses
In their apology to TMZ, Sande Alessi said they weren’t just looking for dark skinned African Americans to play “poor” girls. Notice, however, that they did not correct anything about their A, B, or C casting descriptions.
Would dark skinned girls be allowed to audition for A, B, or C roles?
If not, then non-blacks and light skinned blacks could potentially audition for any of the four categories, while dark skinned black girls are limited to auditioning for only one. Because of a racist stereotype, there are four times as many job opportunities for light skinned women as there are for dark skinned women in this particular casting call.
As difficult as it is for dark skinned women to be cast as the gorgeous girl in minor or supporting roles, it’s even more difficult for them to land the more lucrative leading roles.
Denzel Washington told The Hollywood Reporter the advice he gives to his own dark skinned daughter:
I tell my daughter: “You’re black, you’re a woman, and you’re dark skinned at that. So you have to be a triple, quadruple threat…. Look at Viola Davis. That’s who you want to be. You want to be her. Forget about the little pretty girls because … if you’re relying on that, when you hit 40, you’re out the door. You better have some chops.”
The idea of earning potential being affected by skin tone discrimination is not new.
Colorism and Class
Several others have noted the only mention of class is in the D category, which in this casting call is associated with being less attractive and medium to dark skinned.
In many countries, dark skin is associated with poverty, while fair skin is associated with wealth. These associations are unfortunately based on a bleak reality (Brazil example).
Even research in the U.S. provides evidence of a color-based wealth/income gap that sort of runs parallel to the race-based gap. (I’m currently delving into the historical research of Howard N. Bodenhorn. You can explore more research on colorism here.)
However, this does not mean that all poor or wealthy people have the same physical features. Poor and wealthy people come in all colors, sizes, and shapes.
The repeated Hollywood depictions of dark skinned people as poor and uneducated or light skinned people as wealthy and successful, actually helps perpetuate socio-economic disparities in the real world.
Colorism and Hair Politics
The writer of this casting call was very clear that the “hottest of the hottest” girls have long hair that’s not weave.
First of all, women of all ethnicities wear fake hair pieces in Hollywood, even the ones whose hair is already long. It’s called being an actress, or model, or performer. One gig might require a short bob, the next might require a big afro, the next might require a bald head, and the next might require Rastafarian style locs. In order to make this happen, stylists use fake hair all the time. It’s HOLLYWOOD. Nothing is as it seems.
Second, not only have they excluded dark skinned women from A or B roles, they’ve also excluded light skinned women reminiscent of Halle Berry or Alicia Keys, and even white women reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence, just because their hair is short.
Third, the ranking suggests that the most attractive girls in the film will all have naturally long (straight/wavy) hair. This is Hollywood again perpetuating a dangerously narrow or unrealistic standard of beauty. The truth is, my friends, beautiful women come with all different types of hair textures and lengths, including bald. But, as this casting call exemplifies, we’ll never see the diversity of that beautiful hair because it’s restricted before casting directors ever actually see any women. They don’t even allow for the possibility that the “hottest” woman to audition might have short hair. It would appear they can’t even fathom such a thing.
Finally, the casting call plays on the stereotype that African American women in general, and in particular medium and dark skinned women are not able to have long hair without weaves. This is a myth. The problem, as Dr. Neely stated in her post on hair shaming, is that black women’s hair is damaged in the cycle of trying to achieve styles that are naturally suited to white women’s hair, thus preventing many black women’s hair from growing to it maximum potential. Again, this casting call is a perfect example of why so many black women try to achieve that look, because it’s what society ranks and has always ranked as most attractive and acceptable.
“That’s just how it is.”
When I consider how many projects Sande Alessi has worked on, it’s no wonder there’s so little representation of dark skinned black women in Hollywood. In most of their films, they probably didn’t even bother casting African American women, and thus have never been exposed for their racism and colorism. But Straight Outta Compton clearly presented a challenge for them. Since they had to include lots of black women, I guess they figured they should do their best to limit them to the “least desirable” roles.
It’s perfectly fine for casting directors and filmmakers to want specific characters. There’s nothing wrong with specific. Specific is art.
But the so called “specific” descriptions in Sande Alessi’s casting call are nothing more than racist, regressive, lazy, shallow, stereotypes. That’s bad storytelling. That’s bad film-making.
And while that’s always and too often the reality in Hollywood, we have a right to be unsatisfied with it. We have the right to speak out, to petition, to boycott, to never stop fighting for change. Because what happens in Hollywood, unfortunately doesn’t stay in Hollywood. It get’s projected around the globe and has real-world consequences.
I am happy to see that as of Friday, Universal Pictures and the Straight Outta Compton Filmmakers have released a statement distancing themselves from the casting call:
“the filmmakers … did not approve and do not condone the information in this casting notice. We regret and sincerely apologize for being in any way associated with the offensive descriptions it contained.”