For Actors Of Color, The Struggle For On-Screen Visibility Can Sometimes Be Literal

"Make sure that everybody looks the way you need them to look.”

Color photography was developed, so to speak, with a definite bias toward lighter skin — a reality cinematographer Ava Berkofsky sought to overcome when she was hired to light season 2 of the HBO comedy Insecure.


"When creating different film stocks, they were tested on White women, and that was how they came up with the chemistry to replicate skin tones nicely," Berkofsky told BBC News in a recent interview.

Specifically, cinematographers who worked with Kodak film also worked with "Shirley cards," named for a caucasian model and Kodak employee named Shirley Page, as Mic reports.

"So it wasn't until much later when there was pushback against film stocks not being great on people of color that people started looking into it more," Berkofsky added.

That history was top of mind for this cinematographer when she interviewed with Insecure's executive producers. "They were really concerned about the cinematographer's ability to shoot Black skin. And I felt like this is the very most basic job of cinematographers: to take the people in front of your lens and make sure that everybody looks the way you need them to look."

"I felt that the cinematography shouldn't prioritize lighter skin they way often it does when it's not a Black cast or when it's a Black cast except that everyone involved is coming from the outside," she explained. "So I really just tried to prioritize keeping the vernacular of the way I lit for people of color because that's who the show is for. I mean, everyone enjoys it, but the show is about people of color in Los Angeles."

It seems clear that in order for diversity in film to become an actuality, those on camera need to look their best, so it makes sense that with influences such as Ava DuVernay's Selma, Berkofsky focused on reflectivity, both with light and with makeup. (DuVernay previously criticized the way shows such as Boardwalk Empire lit its actors of color.) 

"I came up with a different way of looking at lighting people of color, and it's about putting something for the skin to reflect that is whatever color you want, and that way, you're not trying to change the skin color," Berkofsky said. "You're really just using it to expose itself."

For example, as Berkofsky told Mic, she uses an LED light board to "reflect on [star Issa Rae's] face rather than 'lighting' it."

Berkofsky also has advice for any darker-skinned person who wants to look as good in their club selfies as the Insecure characters do on their nights out: "Stand close to a soft light source and turn three quarters to the light, so that it's not filling in everything the same way," she told Mic. "Kind of like a Rembrandt painting."

Cover photo via Instagram


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