It’s great to see the talented Omar Sy in the lead role of Netflix’s highly-rated crime caper Lupin, but the show is sorely lacking in representation for Black women. Why is this the still case, not just in Lupin, but in so many modern dramas?
*Contains mild spoliers for Lupin
Based on the fictional story of Assane Diop, who is seeking revenge for his father who was framed for theft and killed himself when Assane was a child, it is inspired by Maurice Leblanc’s novels about gentleman/thief Arsene Lupin.
When I saw that Lupin had cast a Black man in the lead role (Omar Sy) I had to watch it. I anticipated a diverse cast but the disappointment set in when I got to episode two. All of the main characters had been introduced and not one (with the exception of the lead) was Black.
By episode four of the five-part series, I came to find that Diop’s main love interest, his mistress and even his temporary sidekick were all white women. I started to wonder, as I have many times before, where were the Black women? Did they not exist in modern day Paris where the show is set? Judging by Lupin, no. The only Black woman in the show who got a few words of dialogue was the cleaning lady – her role was so insignificant we didn’t even find out her name.
According to the world population review, 3.5% of the French population has a Black African background compared to 3.3% in the UK. So, Black people do in fact exist in France’s capital city and there is no reason for Black women to be missing from the cast (just as there’s no excuse for the lack of diversity we have become used to in UK-based crime dramas and thrillers).
With Diop’s childhood love being white, as well as the woman he has an affair with and his accomplice, it seems Lupin forgot Black women altogether.
To add insult to injury, done-to-death racist stereotypes play out in the series. In episode one, we see a 14-year-old Assane Diop swim to the adult daughter of the wealthy Hubert Pelligrini to prove her wrong after she makes a remark about Black people not being able to swim. She promises a kiss as reward if he succeeds.
I cringed as I watched this scene. Not only are Juliette Pelligrini’s remarks not explored or questioned, she’s rewarded for her ignorant behaviour. In fact, she has an affair with the lead character. I felt that this scene in particular was distasteful and missed the mark. There was an opportunity to explore familiar racial undertones that was never taken.
This is certainly not an issue only in Lupin. The TV and film industry, across every network and station, has largely ignored Black women, but particularly dark-skinned Black women over the years.
A racist preconception has long existed in the film industry that films or shows with a Black character in the lead will not be a success. Thankfully shows like Lupin, Marvel’s box office smash Black Panther and indie hits like Issa Rae’s brilliant Insecure have dispelled such nonsense.
And yet Black women are still overlooked. The impact of Black female representation (or the lack of thereof) results in Black girls and women feeling unheard.
As a young Black girl, I recall that there were not many coming-of-age teenage films that had dark-skinned Black women. There was rarely any positive representation that I could look to that didn’t feed into stereotypes. Having light-skinned Black women on screen is not enough. Even huge commercial hits like Bridgerton, which have been upheld for diversity are sorely lacking in roles for women with dark Black skin.
In 2002, Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win an Oscar for best actress (for her role in Monster’s Ball) – the emotion in her acceptance speech was powerful. It was a sign of hope that the reality for Black actresses would change. But nearly 20 years on, Berry remains the ONLY Black woman to have won in this category.
One study of film directors’ ethnicity in the U.S. from 2011-2019 found over 84% of movie directors were white. A seperate study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative examined the top 1,300 grossing films from 2007 to 2019 and showed that out of the 113 directors of those films, less than 1% were women of colour. Statistics like this show why it’s so vital to continue to fund, support and uplift the Black women who are putting dark-skinned Black women at the forefront of their scripts (and not in stereotypical or degrading roles).
On TV, from Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You to Steven Canals’ Pose, the landscape is changing slowly. In 2021, there is more hope ahead. From Batwoman starring a Black female lead, Javicia Leslie, to Jennifer Hudson being hand-picked to depict Aretha Franklin in the drama Respect and the highly anticipated Zola making it to the big screens later this year – we’ll start to see Black women front and centre – now let’s keep them there.
Images: Courtesy of Netflix