• Dami Afam Ade-Odiachi

Beverly Naya’s documentary, Skin, reviewed: It is not enough

Racism is acknowledged, understood. It has a name. The various ways it’s used to cause pain, diminish opportunities, and oppress people, are documented and known. Every black person, or person of colour, has a story that they can point to, a sign post that says, this... this happened because of the colour of my skin. My earliest was in an airport. Was I 6? Was I 9? When one white man called me a monkey and told me to go back to my mummy? Was it Heathrow? Was it Gatwick? Was it Dulles? Was it Schipol? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I remember. The same is not true of colorism - discrimination within racial identities based on color; lightness is always preferred to darkness. Even more complicated and vague when applied to Nigeria, where there are battlelines decided by ethnic ties. Do you face discrimination because you’re dark, or is it because you’re Yoruba, Ibo, or Hausa? It’s difficult to say. But the fact, the thing that every Nigerian knows, but few can articulate, is that there is currency in the lightness of your skin. It’s why according to the World Bank in 2011, 77 per cent of Nigerian women use skin bleaching products with some degree of regularity.

On the 28th of June, Beverly Naya’s documentary, Skin, made it’s long awaited debut on Netflix to rapturous applause. It is deserving. Skin is a series of beautiful pictures, moments, and characters, that are stitched together by beautiful writing and breathtaking filmography. The documentary tells the story of how a group of Nigerian entertainment heavyweights - led by Beverly Naya, came to love themselves and their skin. It hopes that these coming of age stories will teach us, black people the world round, to love ourselves in whatever shade.

The film explores the very human struggle that is loving and accepting yourself as you are in a world where you’re given every reason to do the opposite. Naturally desirous of success and wealth, we make idols out those who appear to be more successful than we are and aspire to be like them; to become them. When this journey of self improvement (a path we all walk) focuses on the things we know to be virtuous like confidence, self esteem, and discipline, it is a good thing. We grow into bigger sums and add them on to ourselves. Nurture overcomes the limitations of nature. You add qualities unto yourself that you may not have been born with, nurture overcoming nature; self love and self improvement.

However, when you focus on the physical, the lightness of someone’s skin, the size of another’s breasts, or the colour of another’s eyes, you’re sliding down a slippery slope. If you do not love yourself from the inside, nothing on the outside will change this. This is the hypothesis that Skin presents. It’s a brilliant way to begin the conversation about the colorism or shadeism in Lagos, Nigeria, Africa and the world, but is it enough? That is the question.

Gabrielle Union says, “You can love what you see in the mirror, but you can’t self esteem your way out of the way the world sees you.” This is the part of the conversation that Skin leaves out almost entirely. One of its strongest contributors, Dianna Yekini, an actress I personally adore, complains about how Casting Directors refuse to consider her for parts because of the darkness of her skin. The documentary does not investigate her claim. Another contributor, the popular Nigerian rapper, Phyno, claims that his music video director friend, Clarence Peters, says light skinned girls are camera friendly, that you don’t have to light up the environment so much for them to fit in. This claim also goes mostly unchallenged and by leaving it so, it is possible for viewers to think that it is the truth. It is not the truth. Art, the expression and application of human creative skill and imagination, takes work. Difficulty has no place in this discussion. There is your vision and what must be done to achieve it. Nothing else matters. But people think all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. Failing to challenge ill formed opinions does nothing but encourage them. In this regard Skin is complicit in the very thing that it’s trying to preach against: colorism.

The documentary, Skin, also fails to recognize that the color of someone’s skin isn’t necessarily the only factor at play in how a person sees themselves. The intersectionality of issues is ignored. Looking at myself, and the privilege I was born into informs how I look at my dark skin. Bleaching, brightening, whitening, lightening, won’t serve me because I have a multitude of things that do. If I didn’t have my education, my good looks (facial features), an athletic enough physique, a strong supportive family, and if I wasn’t a man, then, I might consider bleaching to get ahead because, being lighter skinned does seem to improve people’s life outcomes. The source of this bias needs to be investigated too, because as long as you look at problems at the surface, you focus on the what, the symptoms, and not the underlying cause of the issue, the disease.

Having said all that, it’s a must watch. It gets the conversation going. It begs us to ask ourselves questions about why our society favors people with light skin over people with dark skin. It is an excellent beginning to a very necessary conversation, but as it stands, it is not enough.

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