When I first saw Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s portrait in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, I thought, she doesn’t look like herself. When I gazed at Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis’ raw silhouettes I thought, Oh, the magazine was going for one of those ‘artists bare all, naked and intimate feels with this photo shoot.’ But when I saw the images of Jennifer Lawrence and Cate Blanchet for the same spread I know longer had speculative thoughts. I knew something had gone awry.
Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz is the woman responsible for capturing “13 of the cinema’s finest actresses” for Vanity Fair’s 2016 Hollywood Portfolio which has rightfully raised a few brows at the dichotomy between the way the African American actresses were portrayed versus the Caucasian starlets. The slideshow on the glossy’s website begins with a rosy-cheeked, pink-lipped Jennifer Lawrence that’s not quite as glamorous as you’d see America’s new sweetheart on the red carpet, but it’s also far from some of the bare-faced looks that follow, but I’ll get to that in a second. See, next in the lineup is a very picturesque Cate Blanchett, followed by a photo of Jennifer Lawrence with Jane Fonda who is also, admittedly, less glam than we’ve come to know her for, and then there’s Brie Larson in a casual tee and jeans, and Helen Mirren whose age shows but is still masked in the kind of treatment one would expect to find on a portrait of English royalty, then you Diane Keaton doing her mad hatter thing before you stumble upon a grim picture of Viola Davis that stops you dead in your tracks. The TWA we’ve heralded her for wearing on red carpets is barely visible, there’s no makeup to speak of, and in contrast to the other images which have the actresses looking into the camera, Viola is staring off in the distance. She looks tired, weary, almost broken.
If this photo shoot were a commentary on Davis’ climb in the entertainment industry, I’d get it. If the stripped down look was an, albeit delayed, response to charges of her “unconventional beauty” I’d say bravo. If there was a purposeful contrast being drawn between the way people see white actresses versus black, I’d say good job. But when she and Lupita — who is shown from the side with no makeup or the perfectly coiffed TWA that has been her signature for the past few years — are the only women made to look somewhat downtrodden against a sea of white women whose looks, while somewhat downplayed, still convey their vibrant personalities, something feels wrong.
It’s almost like no one even tried, the reasoning for which I can’t say though it almost takes me back to that unfortunate Elle magazine cover with Gabourey Sidibe in which the stylist seemed to not know how to handle the “Precious” star so they threw on whatever wig was handy and said “Say Cheese.” That Mbatha-Raw’s photo has a bit of color to it and was shot in the same vein as the other subjects disproves my hopeful theory a racial commentary was being made, and yet many argue one still was because of the resulting photographs. I can only speculate that Vanity Fair and Leibovitz were so fearful of getting it wrong, of whitewashing these darker complected, natural hair icons and being criticized as such that they imagined this untouched look would be better. That was a poor assumption because we’ve seen better and it wouldn’t have taken much to create synergy between the portraits of Nyong’o, Davis, and the rest of those profiled if an attempt to learn how to capture black beauty outside of the lens of European ideals was attempted.
Without any explanation from the magazine or photographer, it’s hard to understand in what direction this shoot was expected to go. And while Nyong’o and Davis are still beautiful in this raw, natural state, the difference in their representation is jarring and questionable without said reasoning.