HBO says it's "very disappointed" after hearing of a 2019 incident on the set of "Lovecraft Country" that involved darkening a Black extra’s skin.
In a statement to TODAY, HBO said it was “very disappointed” to hear of the incident.
"This should not have happened, and we are taking steps to ensure this doesn’t occur again in the future," HBO told TODAY on Tuesday.
The 2019 incident became widely known after Amber J. Phillips, a writer, artist and storyteller drew attention to the actor's videos about it on TikTok. In Phillips' nearly 10 minute viral Instagram video, she critiques how "Black people casually participate in the violence that is f---ing colorism."
The actor, Kelli Ffrench-Parker, told TODAY the incident happened when she was 21 and working as an extra in Atlanta while she was searching for a full-time job after graduating from college. She explained that she’d been excited to book the gig — which was advertised as a “20 to 25-year-old African American woman portraying the younger version of an actress in a wedding photo,” she said — and even got her own small trailer on set.
“I wasn't expecting … to be in the actual like hair and makeup tent with the principal cast and to have, like, a PA coming through to get my breakfast order,” she said. “This is all very new for me in general.”
So when she heard the makeup artists discussing how her features were similar to the actor she was supposed to be the younger version of but noting her lighter skin tone, she didn’t think much of it.
“I'm just like on my phone reading a book, texting my friends, not really fully paying attention,” she said. “And just like, as I noticed that the makeup’s getting a little bit darker, I remember texting my friends and saying, ‘What should I do? Should I say something?’”
"I had no idea they were going to do this to me beforehand. And if I knew beforehand, I would not have accepted this job. Who thought this was a good idea?" she asked in her viral video.
Ffrench-Parker said she wishes she had taken a stand but at the time, she thought she should be professional.
“And so like, I didn't say anything and I just kind of let it continue and even like down to the point of like painting my hands to match because I'm in a wedding photo and I'm wearing a wedding ring,” she said. “It was just very like it was very conflicting uncomfortable, kind of experience to be in.”
In her viral Instagram critique, Phillips explained how and why the incident was upsetting.
(There is some profanity in the Instagram video)
"What what we're dealing with here is not only the act of blackface but the erasure of dark-skinned Black women to tell our own stories," Phillips told TODAY. "And it happens across, media, any kind of visual picture storytelling."
Phillips explained she'd had a visceral reaction to seeing Ffrench-Parker's TikToks, which inspired her to make her own video about the issue.
"When we bring (colorism) up, we're told we're being delusional because 'We're all Black. Aren't we all getting the same opportunities?' But the reality is we're not. We're not getting the same opportunities on-air, in culture, and we're not getting the same opportunities when it comes to our interactions in life."
She added that she'd been particularly frustrated because the incident had happened in Atlanta, where there is a large Black population, and on a "Black show ... that's literally being heralded and celebrated and honored for depicting the details of racism across time."
"Y'all could not prevent, one of the most horrific things that's happening in our communities, which is colorism," she said of the show, "Lovecraft Country." "You are willing to participate in the horrific acts of racism and white supremacist delusion, and colorism, in order to tell a story that you are being honored and rewarded for that, in real-time, is harming a large group of Black people."
In a previous interview with TODAY, Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American studies at Yale, explained how blackface became a regular form of entertainment when minstrel shows became popular in the 1800s.
“Blacked-up” white male actors starred in the shows, she said, and performed acts “designed to mimic and caricature” Black people.
“(Minstrel shows) … dehumanize African Americans as being buffoonish and able to withstand extreme forms of violence,” she said. “The important thing for people to really try to grasp is that cultural representations operate as forms of propaganda …We certainly know that blackface became a form of white supremacy (and served) to control Black bodies and Black labor.”
After the Civil War and in the post-Reconstruction era, Black entertainers took to the stage as part of the troops as well, Brooks explained.
“There are limited jobs,” she said of Black actors at the time, “and one of the ways you can make a living is to black up and perform in these caricatures of Blackness, invented by white people, and make a living that way.”
So when Ffrench-Parker found herself in the makeup chair, she says she wishes she’d spoken up, given the history.
“I knew I was wrong to be in that position in the first place,” she said, adding that she knows the history of minstrel shows and lighter-skinned Black performers darkening their skin. “While I'm Black and my parents and grandparents are Black and all of that, I still know that I have privileges as a lighter-skinned woman and the impact that colorism has not only in the entertainment industry but across everyday life.”
She said in a Twitter thread over the weekend that she was "weak and complacent" in the moment.
"On set, in the chair, I was meek and passive and did not assert my agency as black women for the betterment of my darker sisters and for that I am sorry," she wrote.
“And I never wanted to be the type of actress that is taking roles from darker-skinned women where I know that I'm not the best fit," she told TODAY.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with HBO's statement to TODAY and with comments from Amber J. Phillips.