How the red carpet can and should be used as a vital platform to promote Black talent
Sunday 12th March 2023 may not mean much to some, but to the stars of Hollywood – from the actors to the image architects and glam squads behind them – it was the highly-anticipated, most-watched red-carpet event of the year: the 95th Annual Academy Awards. Alongside a parade of custom-made gowns, head-turning beauty looks were showcased by the likes of Halle Bailey, Danai Gurira, Janelle Monae, Angela Bassett, Tems and Rihanna, illuminated by the camera flashbulbs.
Representative of a significant pillar of Black glamour, the looks these women chose served as a platform for the creativity behind Black beauty. It's particularly poignant post-#Oscarssowhite, the conversation started by activist and writer April Reign in 2016, highlighting the fact that out of 20 actors nominated that year, none were people of colour.
Most jaw-dropping at the 2023 Oscars was Danai Gurira, whose sculptural bubbled silhouette represents the pinnacle of Black beauty. Paying homage to her heritage she shared: “This is my African self coming out here... a tribute to the women who carry amazing things on their heads with an astounding poise at all times”. The major hair moment was conjured up in collaboration with hairstylist Larry Sims using products from Flawless by Gabrielle Union.
Then there was the new Little Mermaid, Halle Bailey, who graced the event in a blue fairy-tale Dolce & Gabbana gown, with matching ice-toned make-up and a majestic up-do showcasing the beauty of her natural locs.
Another one to watch was a veteran of Black beauty ingenuity, the actor and singer Janelle Monáe, who posed with a monochromatic make-up look inspired by Black beauty icons of the ‘60s – crafted by make-up artist Keita Moore using Nars. Monae’s hair look was also one for the books, with her cornrows held together at the back featuring beautifully woven silver thread for an added touch of luxe.
But no matter the event – from awards season to film premieres or the Met Gala – any high-profile red-carpet is a vital platform; the significance and impact that a celebrity’s look can have over the culture as a whole is astounding. And while details may be missed by the naked eye, every gown by a Black designer, every hairstyle by a Black artist, every make-up product by a Black-owned beauty brand or look inspired by a past Black icon is not only a celebratory beacon, but a symbol of where the Black community has come from, our perseverance of today, and the strength needed for tomorrow.
Since the first red carpet was laid down in the late 1920s, we’ve had names such as Hattie McDaniel pave the way for other Black women. As the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award in 1940 for her supporting role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, still amidst segregation – having to sit at the back of the audiorium – she radiated in a turquoise dress with gardenias through her hair. Since then, Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were nominated for Leading Actress at the Oscars in 1973 and Halle Berry, in 2002, won the accolade (the first African-American woman to do so). These, plus so many more names that have also made history, are an example of how we’ve had to push past racial barriers to be seen and appreciated in the same light within Hollywood.
Look back just nine years ago to the 2015 Academy Awards red carpet, where Zendaya was the centre of ignorant commentary made by the TV presenter Giuliana Rancic, who referred to the actress' dreadlocks as smelling “like patchouli oil and weed”. It was not only significant that Zendaya chose to wear dreadlocks – a traditional African style – to the Oscars, but that she then addressed the offensive stereotyping. “There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair,” the actress responded in a statement. “My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscars red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of colour that our hair is good enough.”
While it was responsibly, and gracefully, handled by Zendaya, and followed with an apology from Rancic, it's just one example of the challenges Black women have faced when it comes to our identity and styling at such events, and though the narrative is slowly shifting, there are still hills to climb towards authentic diversity. That’s why, when each award season showcases Black celebrities with hairstyles championing our heritage, it’s a marker of pride. Through this history and struggle, Black beauty comes alive: thoughtful looks from red carpet icons like Zendaya, Lizzo, Viola Davis and Lupita N’yongo can celebrate hope, strength and glory.
One can’t celebrate the history being made on the red carpet without also uplifting the beauty names that help ideate and curate the looks that we see in front of the lens. Make-up visionaries like Dame Pat McGrath and Sir John, hair architects like Vernon Francois and Lacy Redway, and fashion stylists like Law Roach and Jason Bolden, are all trying to break down walls of exclusivity in Black style.
The fact is, representation on red carpets matters – and each occasion going forward ought to continue progressing the narrative. Seeing a variety of hair designs showcasing texture, history and pride, as well as make-up and wardrobe styling that uplifts and celebrates Black beauty, is not simply about a woman getting dressed up for the red carpet: it's taking a political stance. One that redefines the seats at the Hollywood table that refused to recognise us for so long.
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