Digital Skin

I’ve been in situations where the cameras felt racist, because they simply wouldn’t show a dark face. (Sean Bobitt)

Cinema’s invention and DuBois’ proclamation of the color line occur simultaneously, as Kara Keeling have pointed out (Keeling loc 259). While there certainly has been and remains a color line in cinematic culture, there is another color line that has been explored less: that of color technology as actively producing racial difference. Darker skin tones reproduce poorly in industry standard practices, ranging from film stock, three-point lighting, make-up techniques, and color saturation. The question of color in cinema has recently become a field of intense scrutiny, primarily due to Hollywood’s shift to digital filmmaking. Color tones and saturation levels are different for digital cameras, and can be more light sensitive, while digital post-production allows for greater manipulation of color levels.

Color: Technology and Race

Defining color is a mess: the color of an object depends on the wavelengths the object absorbs and reflects. In other words, color is an objective, material phenomenon. But despite the fact that these wavelengths varies throughout the day, depending on weather, artificial light, and other circumstances, we still perceive the object as having the “same” color. In other words, color is a subjective, perceptual phenomenon. Once we start naming colors, everything completely collapses since different cultures have different categories for colors.

When cinema emerged and began to incorporate color into its production, decisions about color capture had to be made, even if the decision was that film simply reproduced whatever color happened to be there. It doesn’t. Every choice of lens, film stock, choice of lighting set-up, time of day, and so forth all impact color capture. The predominant issue is one of dynamic range, which is the range between the lightest and the darkest color tones.

As Lorna Roth has shown, “Film emulsions could have been designed initially with more sensitivity to the continuum of yellow, brown, and reddish skin tones, but the design process would have had to be motivated by a recognition of the need for an extended dynamic range.” (Roth 118, emphasis in original.) At the time, and still today, a “technological unconscious” permeates, which suggests that there is no cultural dimension to technology. Instead, technology is regarded as somehow beyond ideology, a neutral social practice.

In Racecraft Karen and Barbara Fields show how race is a social practice, an action that transforms its target into a delimited object (26). Skin color is also a material, technological practice, invisibly evident in the development of film technologies optimized for white skin color. As white skin tones become the norm built into film stock, alongside cinema practices, all other skin tones become deviations from that norm.

What this technological practice builds is what we might call a cinematic nonconscious, a nonconscious acceptance that black people simply have “ashen-looking facial skin colours contrasted strikingly with the whites of eyes and teeth.” (Roth 117) Problematically, the facial details of African American are reproduced with less detail, thus compounding and producing the idea that all black people look alike.

The general reception of cinema as realistic is part of what compounds with issue: cinema reproduces reality, we think, but in fact, cinema organizes and produces reality. We now begin to see the material agency of film stock and emulsion. Through cinematic images, film color technologies participate in the production of race. Whereas Arun Saldanha argues that the human phenotype participates in the machinic assemblage of race (9), so too do film color technologies. The materiality of color technologies is an actor in how race and skin color is perceived and so also in how race and skin color is understood. In Latour’s terms, film stock, lighting setups, and more are mediators, conduits that make a difference rather than intermediaries that simply transmit without change. So, the camera‘s ability to record light and color is a form of agency.

Color technologies’ agency also allows us to better understand the messiness of color. We willingly accept the color of an object as an attribute of that object, no matter how much the object’s color has been distorted or changed by the agency of color technologies. We need to recognize that color is not simply an attribute of an object but part of a larger cinematic process. Kara Keeling uses precisely the term “cinematic” to designate the assemblage of cinematic matter and cinematic perceptual schemas that together constitute reality (Keeling loc 304). Cinema has trained our sensorium in specific ways, making certain images perceptible and others imperceptible (loc 302). Power is coded into the materiality of cinematic technologies.

When technological agency colors our perception, simply altering the representational material — i.e. actors, settings, narratives — is insufficient to “challenge the forces that deny that representation.” (loc 431) Materiality’s agency too must be changed and questioned. Digital filmmaking has suddenly become an unexpected ally. The increased dynamic range of digital cameras, both in terms of color but especially light, has produced “the potential to manifest an alternate perceptual schema that could perfect a different social reality.” (loc 370) Unfortunately, Keeling never directly engages with digital video or even the material agency of concrete technologies. However, plenty African American filmmakers have taken to digital filmmaking in order to circumvent the racist cinematic nonconscious of celluloid cinema. This is not to argue that digital video is in any way beyond ideology, or somehow not a mediator; most certainly digital video is both mediator and ideological, but its greater flexibility allows for a line of flight from celluloid filmmaking.


Moonlight is a troubled coming-of-age story in three chapters, each naming a stage in our protagonist’s life: i. Little, ii. Chiron, iii. Black. Each stage shows how Little/Chiron/Black struggles to find his own identity. Helped early on by Juan (Mahershala Ali) who tells Little that he will at some point have to choose who he is and not let anyone else decide for him. Evidently, this is the struggle central to the entire film. Based on an unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the idea of color is clearly announced, especially as it pertains to skin color and identity.

Color saturation is different for each part of the movie, something cinematographer James Laxton openly admits, working with colorist Alex Bickel to evoke various moods. However, rather than investigate the broad effects of color and mood, I am here more interested in the role skin color plays in Moonlight. All three actors — Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes — are quite dark-skinned, traditionally the most difficult skin tones to film, as we have seen. Yet Laxton and Bickel manage to draw out the different tones and hues of each actor, without losing any color vibrancy and also playing their skin color off of other actors’ skin tones, most notably Naomie Harris, who portrays Paula, the mother.

When Little hides in the drug hole from the other boys, the lower floor is dark, with only a narrow crack for the light to get through. The Arri Alexa XT Plus is still able to pick up outlines and silhouettes with no lighting setup and against the reflected light of the white wall, the Alexa’s dynamic range allows for a broad spectrum of skin tones to come through in Little’s skin. We even get lens flare inside from the narrow crack, which adds color vibrancy to the shot. As Juan pulls down the board in front of the window, and climbs in, the Alexa still affords a full view of his face, rich in detail and not simply a black mass. The reverse shot of Little is the same: plenty of detail and color grades without the eyes feeling too white in contrast.

More than just a technical feat and a production anecdote, what these different skin tones do is suggest individual difference and identity among dark-skinned characters. On the one hand, this skin color difference means that Juan does not come across as threatening, something that is also expressed through his body language, of course. Juan is a person, an individual, not a big, black stranger. On the other hand, Little’s apprehension, doubt, and fear are clearly evident in his face, providing opportunity for empathic identification. In other words, the very mechanism for cinematic identification is established through the dynamic color range of the digital video camera.

Later, when Little is brought home by Juan and Little’s mother is upset, we also see how color tones work to differentiate Little and Paula. Against cool blue and tan tones, the different hues and subtleties of Little’s and Paula’s skin are clearly evident, without either one losing definition or detail. Here, while their different skin tones suggest difference, they also suggest identity. In doing so, the increased skin color detail possible with the Arri camera allows Jenkins to circumvent white as identity and black as difference. Instead, different tones of dark skin suggest their own kind of identity.

The Arri camera, alongside lighting setup, makeup, light meters, Jenkins, Laxton, and a whole range of mediators produce a spectrum of skin tones that no longer need produce a binary in identity terms. The fact that there are no white people in Moonlight at all allows for more attention and detail to dark skin, to allow it to glow and signify without falling into difference. The power inherent in the Arri Alexa‘s more sensitive sensor is here utilized to expand the range of skin tones, and so allow for a broader range of becoming than is available the conventional celluloid film.

Indeed, the dynamic range of the Arri is pivotal in a painful confrontation between Chiron and his mother. Chiron has spent the night at Teresa’s place, since Paula had company. When Chiron walks home in the morning, Paula comes to meet him and asks if he is well. Sensing the trap that is coming, Chiron is noncommittal, after which Paula demands the money she knows Theresa gave him. She drags Chiron in to their apartment, where a cut separates outside from inside. The brightness of the outside sunshine makes the white door gleam and produces a fuzzy outline as the ISO speed adjusts. However, because of the dynamic range of the Arri, Paula’s face is clearly visible as she steps through the door and runs into the apartment.

The apartment walls are white, producing a stark contrast between Paula and Chiron. Yet again, the Arri allows for clear detail of both characters’ skin tones, so that even though they are shot against white walls, neither of them become ashen or washed-out. Their individual skin tones are again clearly visible, especially significant for Paula’s greying, sickly skin of a drug addict. Highly unflattering bright light makes all her skin flaws stand out, underscoring the toll the drugs take on her. Once again, the Arri serves as a mediator here for making the difference evident between Paula and Chiron, without making Chiron’s skin too dark for any detail or identity.

A similar principle is at work the last time we see Paula and Black together. Having come back to Miami to meet Kevin, Black stops by the rehab center where his mother now both lives and works. The muted colors are reminiscent of the blue and green tones in Little’s home but the situation is different, if not exactly reversed. Rather than the rich, vibrant, and saturated colors of Little’s childhood, the atmosphere here is far more somber.

While the skin tones of Paula and Black are equally muted, there is no loss of detail or identity for either of them. Paula looks worn and old, while Black’s skin is probably the closest to conventional Hollywood coloring. The bright background makes his facial expressions clear, however, and we can easily see the tear that runs down his face.

Probably the most painful shot sequence in the movie comes at the end and takes place at night, without any lighting setup. First, we see Black leaning into Kevin’s shoulder in a close-up that only gives us access to their faces, cut off from their surroundings. Black has just admitted that he has never touched anyone or been touched by anyone since that night on the beach with Kevin. Unlit, the shot has relatively little detail but we still see the faces clearly enough. The shot invites intimacy in a way we haven’t encountered earlier in the movie, even as the faces are turned down and not for us to look at. Yet the Arri camera allows for this intimate shot because its dynamic range is able to do this shot without extra lighting. Such extra lighting would easily have ruined the intimacy of the moment.

We then get an out-of-sequence shot that is probably Black thinking back on his childhood. Little is shot from the back facing the ocean, his skin reflecting the deep, dark blue of the moonlit sky and ocean. As the camera tracks in, Little turns around and faces the camera and we cut to black. Again, the shot is unlit except for the moonlight, but the Arri is still able to pick up all the blue skin tones of Little’s skin. Another intimacy is produced, this time both between Little and us as viewers but also Little and Black. Is Black who he should be, did he follow Juan’s advice? There seems to me to be an ethical question here at the end, that emerges through the intimacy and frankness of Little’s gaze.

Digital Skin and the Broadening of Cinema

The main point with all these different examples is that we cannot discount the significance of color tone and the technological agency of the Arri camera, alongside the digital intermediate postproduction process. These technical agents become part of the machinic assemblage of race in Moonlight, an assemblage that cannot ignore the impact that cinematic color technologies have in the way that we perceive and understand skin color and subsequently race.

Although I haven’t discussed sexuality here, digital video is often regarded as a queer technology, as it has no essence but is endlessly transformable and fluid. While a longer discussion would be necessary, we can briefly note that Little/Chiron/Black‘s identity appears as equally fluid throughout the film.

In no way are digital technologies ideologically neutral but here we have seen examples of how digital technologies allow for a new line of flight, a new color line to be drawn. A color line that no longer reduces identity of dark-skinned actors and characters, and so affords a different perceptual schema, a straightforward attack on our current cinematic nonconscious.