Tracey Annarella’s 2017 documentary “Not Black Enough” takes on what many in the black community worldwide consider a taboo topic: intra-racial prejudices and colorism. The filmmaker embarked on this project as a matter of personal inquiry. She had dealt with the concept of “acting white” all of her life, and was curious to get the perspective of others ranging from African purists to pageant queens.
It started from a casual statement from a friend, who said in an off-the-cuff manner that she was “trying to be white” when she moved from ethnic Brooklyn to Manhattan.
“I thought it was just about getting a better apartment,” she commented, but it gave her the topic and the impetus to make the 83-minute film that includes some well-known faces such as actress/singer Vanessa Williams, singer Florence LaRue and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
But it also records the voices of people who pass judgment on those who use proper English, wear hair weaves and other unnatural accessories that make them appear to be trying to be less black.
“Not Black Enough” addresses class warfare and the cross-tides that African-Americans are dealing with within the black community every day. The concept that those who resemble either in physical appearance or behavior are given greater opportunities in the wider American society is also a theme that runs deeply throughout the film. The interviewees are educated, economically comfortable or well-off and successful in their careers.
Sometimes using humor and other times true distress, “Not Black Enough” reveals the present-day wounds that still prevail among people of African descent in the United States. And in a stretch Annarella brings in other cultures that also deal with colorism, or the stratification of society based on skin color, through an old joke about crabs in a barrel in the words and language of Hispanics, Filipinos, Indians and Caribbean people.
What is evident is that there is still a great deal of ambivalence, fear and self-hatred that manifests itself through the ways African-Americans interact based on skin color and economic privilege; the legacy of slavery.
“When I was approached about participating in the film, as I said in the film, a lot of it comes from being black, our history and what we have gone through as a result of slavery,” said Marlon Saunders, a musician who has worked with major artists such as Stevie Wonder and a co-producer of the film.
Being very dark-skinned and formally trained in all genres of music, he was ostracized within the community for “acting white.”
“Our history is rooted in trauma,” he added. “And often times in our communities, we talk and we have wonderful healing balms that we use. But we rarely have conversations openly and honestly that say we have trauma. We have trauma that has hit us spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. Given where we are right now and what we are seeing come back around, we have to start to have those conversations.”
“They’re going to give us ways and means to heal,” he said. “To heal ourselves as black people, let’s start there. Heal ourselves individually, in our families then move that out to our friends and to our communities. That trauma is in every relationship that we take, every thought that we think, every reaction that we have whether based in reality or not.”
But the wisest words in the film are spoken by the children, whose angst at being a target of the criticism for acting too white is palpable and moving. They were also quick to point out the senselessness and wasted energy that results from that form of self-hatred that makes one turn on their brother based on the lightness or darkness of their skin.
“Not Black Enough” is currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit, and was shown as a part of the 11th annual African Diaspora Film Festival produced by Artmattan Productions, a distributor of African and diaspora films, which has for the past two years shared partnership with George Washington University.