Ryerson film alumna explores shadeism within the black community

Toronto-based documentary filmmaker Sara Yacobi-Harris tackled the perspectives and narratives of multi-ethnic Jewish identity in her 2016 film Who Is a Jew?. But her deep interest in unravelling identity hasn’t stopped growing just yet, as the filmmaker takes on a new film about shadeism, entitled Dancing Through Shades.

“The film tackles the taboo subject of Shadeism by exploring the experiences of light skin individuals versus dark skinned individuals, but also breaking down the construction of beauty and privilege that is perpetuated through shadeism and colourism” Yacobi-Harris said.

“It’s a story by black people for everyone,” says Harris of her upcoming film challenging shadeism within people of color. (Photo by John Ker)

As a Ryerson alumna who studied humanities, the half-Georgian and Jamaican filmmaker has always noticed subtleties in behaviours and attitudes towards dark skin and light skin individuals in black spaces.  

“Being mixed in a black space is a very particular experience in that you feel that you’re constantly grappling between multiple identities and floating in and out of different spaces,” Harris said. “So I’m drawn to it because it’s complex and there’s so much grey and it’s not black and white, and we often like to make it black and white.”

Alongside Yacobi-Harris is Alexis L. Wood, a director and freelance filmmaker who has done work for CBC and VICE. The focus of the documentary is Esie Mensah, a Ghanaian-Canadian afro fusion dancer who won the Black Canadian award for Best Contemporary Dancer in 2014, and the Cultural Promotion award from the Ghanaian-Canadian Association in 2015. Mensah’s work can also be seen in Rihanna and Drake’s “Work” video, as well as the 2016 Rocky Horror Picture Show TV remake.

The Hamilton-based dancer and choreographer is followed by Harris and Wood, who captured her compilation of dance rehearsals. The film incorporates snippets of performances she’s had and features one-on-one conversations with her dancers. It also includes group conversations between men and women of varying black communities discussing shadeism’s ugliness and discomfort.

Throughout the film, Mensah creates a narrative shedding light on differing experiences with shadeism within the black community. Yacobi-Harris, Wood and Mensah’s work enables an outreach beyond the black community and the dance industry, as the film resonates with a broad and diverse audience experiencing scrutiny for their skin tone.  

“It’s a story by black people with the intention of reaching a wider audience beyond the black community,” Yacobi-Harris said. “This issue does not exist in a silo and the purpose of the film is to spread awareness of this issue of shadeism.”

Yacobi-Harris added that, “it is also about reclaiming a narrative and having black individuals be able to tell their own story and their own experience.”

The film is currently in production and the team aims to have the piece screened across various festivals by end of 2018 or early 2019.  

Esie Mensah will be performing “Shades of Blackness” along with her cast of dancers at Contemporaneity from Oct. 12-14.


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