How the Camera Sees Color (2023)

How the Camera Sees Color (1)

Collection Story

Exploring Colorism and Identity in Early Hollywood Films

Blockbuster films and television series such as Black Panther and Luke Cage have renewed conversations about colorism and identity in Hollywood.

Colorism, the discrimination against individuals based on their skin tone, has long influenced the opportunities available to African Americans. In response to this discrimination, historically, African Americans often found alternate ways to present themselves. Some actors moved outside the mainstream film industry while others played into stereotypes. The creation of race movies for and by African Americans in the early 1900s sought to offer more complex narratives and roles. The various ways African Americans responded to discrimination shaped the early film industry and documented a legacy of unequal representation.

Colorism not only occurs in different racial or ethnic groups but can happen within them as well. Colorism differs from racism in that racism is based on beliefs about the racial inferiority of a group. Racism can include systemic inequality, prejudiced attitudesand discriminatory acts. Colorism is thought to only have negative implications for individuals of darker skin tone. However, lighter-skinned African Americans have been victims of colorism as well. The effects of colorism have proven to be damaging to the identity of black Americans by leading to internalized oppression in the black community. Moreover, the concept of identity, and how a person presents oneself in order to make a living, is not only an issue that has historically hindered black actors and actresses, but everyday black Americans as well.

The historic absence of African American actors and actresses in leading roles has been evident throughout the history of Hollywood films. When African Americans were cast, lighter skinned actors were preferred for more prominent roles. Roles for darker skinned individuals generally played on or amplified racist stereotypes. This placed both lighter and darker skinned African Americans in a situation where many felt as though they could not simply be black without being categorized.This identity crisis caused many lighter skinned African Americans to make attempts at passing for white in public settings in order to compete for more opportunities, which led to increased tensions in the black community.

In Langston Hughes’ 1934 collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, one recurring theme is passing. When passing, black people with light skin tones would be considered as white based on their physical appearance. Passing became increasingly common during the Great Depression. In a stifled economy where it was difficult for whites to find jobs, African Americans found this task to be especially difficult.

In escaping the Jim Crow South, coming north and marrying my white father, she must have thought gaining white privilege was worth the price of losing family ties and her authentic self. The irony was that in gaining white privilege, in passing for white, the onslaught of racism was splayed open to her. Its ugly face could now be shared with her, a ‘white’ woman who would understand and possibly agree.

Gail Lukasik, 2017

Author of White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing

Some African Americans passed for white as a means to either provide for their families, make a decent living, or to get a glimpse of white privilege. In Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks the narrator of the short story “Passing” says, “Ma, some white people certainly don’t like colored people, do they? (If they did, then I wouldn’t have to be passing to keep my good job)." He continues, “When I look at the colored boy porter who sweeps out the office, I think that that’s what I might be doing if I wasn’t light-skinned enough to get by” (Hughes 52).While the stories in Hughes’ collection were fictional, they were certainly based on the experiences of African Americans in the United States at this time. The story of the Johnston family highlights the trials and tribulations of a family struggling with hiding their true identity in order to be accepted into white society.

The image above depicts Dr. Albert C. Johnston, his wife Thyra Johnston, and their four children. The 1949 movie Lost Boundaries, was based on the story of Dr. Johnston’s life. Dr. Johnston, a biracial radiologist who graduated with honors from the University of Chicago’s Rush Medical School, unintentionally passed for white in the 1930s. After completion of his postgraduate work, Johnston could not find a job that would hire African Americans. Eventually, he was hired at Maine General Hospital in Augusta, Maine, the only place that did not inquire about his race. When he realized his associates and co-workers believed he was white, he maintained the secret of his actual identity for over a decade. His wife, who was one-eighth black, understood her husband’s predicament and kept his secret as well. In 1940, the United States Navy recruited Dr. Johnston but suspected him of having “colored blood.” After Dr. Johnston admitted in the investigation to being partly black, the Navy refused him a commission. Stunned by the rejection, Dr. Johnson decided to tell his children about their background. However, this revelation did not impact the Johnson family's role in society. The family continued to live in New Hampshire where Dr. Johnson operated his medical practice into the 1960s.

We never intended to pass for white, it just happened accidentally. Thyra Johnson

Albert Jr., Dr. Johnston’s son, revealed his family’s story to movie producer Louis de Rochemont a few years after he learned the truth from his parents. De Rochemont used the story as the inspiration for Lost Boundaries. The film depicts prominent white stars Mel Ferrer and Beatrice Pearson in the leading roles without the presence of any African Americans. This fact shows that even in a story about a family who was black, Hollywood producers still felt it was necessary to have an exclusively white cast. Dr. Johnston’s story and the film Lost Boundaries are examples of the strain that passing puts on family relationships and the measures African Americans who passed for white took to ensure their identities remained a secret.

For those who were not light-skinned enough to pass for white, many African Americans turned to other means of altering their skin tone. Oftentimes, even lighter-skinned actresses and actors would have to have their makeup done in a way to make them appear even lighter. While advertisements for race films promoted the fact that there would be an “all colored cast,” lobby card advertisements often made African American actors and actresses not only appear lighter skinned, but almost white. The action of something as simple as lightening an actor’s skin tone proved to have serious implications. As black-owned theaters grew, people across the country were exposed to these exaggerated films and advertisements. Many young children and teenagers of darker complexion began to think that it was “bad,” “evil,” or “dirty” to have dark skin, so some turned to harmful chemicals for the purposes of lightening their skin.

As white and a few lighter skinned actors and actresses were the stars of most Hollywood films in the early 1900s, darker skinned individuals had few opportunities to perform on screen. When they did, it was primarily to play on racist stereotypes and preconceived notions about black people. Lincoln Perry, considered by many to be the first African American movie star, is a prime example of how Hollywood often exploited darker skinned individuals to tell a false narrative of how all black people looked and acted. Perry was best known for his stage persona Stepin Fetchit, an incomprehensible, laughing, dancing fool. In real life, Perry was an intelligent man who used the demand for black foolishness and inferiority on the big screento make a living.

Not every dark-skinned individual wanted or was able to pass for white. Many black actors and actresses, whether they wanted to be or not, were subjected to skin appearance alterations, including blackface. Blackface is the use of makeup to exaggerate skin tone and facial features used in the entertainment industry to present a stereotypical and racist image. In The Song of Freedom, a movie starring Paul Robeson, the use of blackface darkens the cast’s skin tones throughout the film, including Robeson himself. The goal of these films was to portray African Americans as uncivilized, savageand comical beings.

How the Camera Sees Color (12)

As African American audiences grew tired of seeing themselves portrayed in such stereotypical and racist ways, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Between the 1910s and 1950s, African American movie theaters grew in popularity by featuring race movies. Race movies were produced for all black audiences and often featured an all-black cast. Race movies made it a priority to combat the stereotypical roles usually made available to black actors and actresses. Instead, they specialized in portraying black actors and actresses in a way that black viewers could actually relate to.

Oscar Micheaux, a pioneer in the race film industry, directed and produced over 40 feature films throughout his career, gaining support from black people across the country. Race movies such as The Homesteader by Micheaux depicted African Americans in a more realistic way. Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company in 1918, to produce films focused on African American audiences. His most well-known films include Within Our Gates, The Exileand Lying Lips. Micheaux tackled race relations head-on in his films, but even he was criticized by other black Americans for preferring lighter skinned actors and actresses. Although he cast African Americans, many of the stars in Micheaux’s films were very fair skinned. While race films were still influenced by colorism, they did present a greater variety in the depictions of and opportunities for African Americans. The popularity of race films underscores how great the desire was for films showing realistic representations of African Americans.

I have always tried to make my photoplays present the truth, to lay before the race a cross section of its own life, to view the colored heart from close range. My results might have been narrow at times, due perhaps to certain limited situations, which I endeavored to portray, but in those limited situations, the truth was the predominant characteristic. It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state that we can raise our people to greater heights.

Oscar Micheaux, Jan. 24, 1925

Philadelphia Afro-American

While hundreds of race films were produced in the early 20th century, they were excluded from mainstream acclaim. Although African Americans responded in creative and resourceful ways to discrimination during this period, colorism in Hollywood remains a pressing issue well into the 21st century. Black actors and actresses still find it difficult to find suitable acting roles and opportunities. In the last few years, the discussion about colorism in the film industry has picked up pace across the nation. To understand the tension surrounding African Americans in the film industry and Hollywood, it is important to understand the history of this relationship. Productions such as Black Panther show that we have come a long way in race relations in the film industry, but we certainly have much more work to do.

View Objects Relating to Race Films in the NMAAHC Collection

Written by Kye Farrow, Robert F. Smith Fund intern
Published January 10, 2019


Film and Television Race Relations


How does a camera see color? ›

Since camera sensors alone cannot 'see' different colors, to capture color images, cameras must use a mechanism to separate the red, green and blue color components of the light. Standard monochrome camera sensors used in scientific imaging can be modified to capture color images.

How do I get accurate color on my camera? ›

4 Ways To Capture Colours More Accurately in Photography
  1. Shooting In RAW.
  2. Set the Correct White Balance.
  3. Calibrated Monitor Screens.
  4. Shooting with a Grey Card.
Apr 14, 2021

How many colors can a camera see? ›

On the other hand, the camera sensor, even in the most advanced digital cameras, can only distinguish about 3 colors (red, green, and blue). However, it can't do this by itself since a sensor is basically color blind.

How does a camera see images? ›

A camera lens takes all the light rays bouncing around and uses glass to redirect them to a single point, creating a sharp image. When all of those light rays meet back together on a digital camera sensor or a piece of film, they create a sharp image.

Can a camera detect color? ›

Since image sensors can't actually “see” colors, color cameras must use filter arrays and other techniques to capture light in a way that allows color imaging information to be derived. This process, however, typically reduces the effective resolution of the image.

What part of the camera detects color? ›

Digital camera sensors just have light-sensitive points we call pixels. By using filters for only red, or blue, or green light, we replicate the light receptors in your eye that only detect red, or blue, or green light. Also, most digital displays, including RGB printing, only output in these frequencies.

Does iPhone camera show true color? ›

By default, iPhone takes photos in HDR (for the rear camera and the front camera) when it's most effective. iPhone 12 models, iPhone 13 models, and iPhone 14 models, record video in HDR to capture true-to-life color and contrast.

What is the most accurate color mode? ›

Even some standard gamut monitors have an sRGB mode, which is usually the most color-accurate (factory-calibrated) picture preset. The sRGB mode simply clamps the monitor's native gamut down to ~100% sRGB, providing you with accurate sRGB colors.

Why does color look different on camera? ›

When there's a correct balance, the camera will record colors as you see them. If the white balance on a digital camera is not set for the lighting conditions, white and any color will not look right. This is because a filter is applied to balance the light when it contains a warmer or cooler tone.

How much color can we not see? ›

Researchers have long regarded color opponency to be hardwired in the brain, completely forbidding perception of reddish green or yellowish blue. Under special circumstances, though, people can see the “forbidden” colors, suggesting that color opponency in the brain has a softwired stage that can be disabled.

What percent of colors can we see? ›

The entire rainbow of radiation observable to the human eye only makes up a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – about 0.0035 percent.

Can people see all colors? ›

Although our visual system can paint a vibrant portrait of the world, its palette of colors is actually quite limited, as we only see between 390 to 750 nm of the full electromagnetic spectrum while the remaining trillion wavelengths escape our view.

Are camera pictures accurate? ›

Comparing Mirror and Camera Accuracy

We are used to seeing our own mirror image, making us feel more at ease and perceive it as more attractive. On the other hand, camera images provide a more accurate representation of how others perceive us, as they capture non-mirrored images affected by environmental factors.

What is the real image in a camera? ›

A real image is formed outside the system, where the emerging rays actually cross; such an image can be caught on a screen or piece of film and is the kind of image formed by a slide projector or in a camera.

Is a camera how others see you? ›

The image you see in the mirror is inverted. Other people see you the way you appear in a photograph, not the way you appear in the mirror.

How is a color reflected in a photograph? ›

When a scene or object is illuminated, some of the light source's wavelengths are absorbed and some are reflected. The reflected wavelengths create what we perceive as color. If no light is reflected (or if there is no illumination), the scene or object looks black.

What detects Coloured light in a camera? ›

Colour sensors detect colours by emitting light (RGB, red, green, blue) to a surface. The colour values ​​are calculated from the reflecting beams and compared with previously stored reference values.

Does the lens detect color? ›

That reflected light enters the eye, where the lens focuses it toward cones and rods. The cones and rods react to the light and encode it into signals that the brain can read. These signals get sent to the brain through a complex network of neurons and synapses. The brain then perceives those signals as color.

How does the color sensor see different colors? ›

Color Sensor - Operating Principle

When an object is irradiated with light containing RGB components, the color of the reflected light will change depending on the color of the object. For example, if the object is red, the reflected light component will be red.


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