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Do Colorism Issues Threaten to Stain the Aaliyah Biopic?

Women and Hollywood By Prachi Gupta | Women and Hollywood June 20, 2014 at 11:32AM

A defense of Zendaya Coleman's casting.
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Aaliyah (L) and Zendaya (R)
Aaliyah (L) and Zendaya (R)

After years of rumors, it's official: Aaliyah is getting a biopic. Lifetime Original Movies announced on Monday that it will adapt Aaliyah: More Than a Woman by former Time music editor Christopher Farley. The film, tentatively titled Aaliyah: Princess of R&B, is due this fall. 

Despite her tragic death in 2001 at age 22, the "Are You That Somebody" and "Try Again" singer ranks No. 10 on Billboard's most successful R&B artists of the past 25 years. The movie will start at the beginning of her brief life, including her debut on Star Search at the age of ten, chronicle her meteoric rise to fame, and the plane crash that cut her life short during the apex of her career. The movie will include original music by Aaliyah as well.

But what was an eagerly anticipated film has become something of a cause celebre among the R&B community due to controversies in casting, questions of familial consent, and the reputation of the network itself. The Lifetime network, which beat VH-1 to the project, is notorious for its genre of hollow and hammy movies. Can Aaliyah get the complex and inspirational retelling that she deserves? Her family, for one, doesn't think so -- Barry Hankerson, her uncle and former manager, reportedly plans to sue Lifetime, saying they neglected to get consent from the family. Furthermore, they say, Aaliyah's story belongs on the big screen. Why isn't she getting the Selena treatment?

The other controversy lies with the casting: The star of the film will be 17-year-old Disney actress and singer Zendaya Coleman, who was just four when Aaliyah died. It is surprising that Zendaya emerged as the top choice, given that Keshia Chante, the 26-year-old Canadian singer and 106 & Park co-host who has been labeled Aaliyah's doppelganger and who has paid homage to the R&B icon through her music, also auditioned for the role. (Solange Knowles was rumored to be interested in the role, too). As of 2012, at least, it was rumored that Chante would play Aaliyah if a biopic materialized, then thought to be coming from VH-1. (For what it's worth, in a recent interview on BET, Chante and Zendaya have an excellent, friendly rapport).

But Zendaya shows promise: As a dancer, singer and actress, she earned second place as the youngest contestant on Dancing with the Stars, has released an album that hit No. 51 on the Billboard 200 last year with a platinum single, and starred in the Disney series Shake It Up, among other Disney Channel movies. As writer and New York radio producer Kim Kane wrote, "The role of Aaliyah will be Zendaya's biggest yet, and if she pulls it off effectively, it could launch her acting career into the stratosphere."

The larger controversy around Zendaya's casting is that she is half-black, and thus lighter-skinned than Aaliyah. The New York Post criticized the casting decision, saying, "Aesthetically, it seems, her bone-straight hair is all that is required to override her prominent Irish heritage. It's not about race, but maybe Lifetime should have taken a clue from the successful TLC biopic that aired on VH1. The popularity of the film had a lot to do with how closely [sic] the actresses -- Keke Palmer, Lil Mama and Drew Sidora -- resembled Chili, Left Eye, and T-Boz."

In a petition brought forth against Zendaya's casting, Egyptian-Sudanese American writer Kola Boof writes:

"There is nothing about Zendaya that reminds me of the Social Image or the Sociological folkways and Valuation that Aaliyah embodied and represented. The fact that filmmakers will have to put Zendaya in 'black face' to complete principal photography is just abominable and unforgivable. It's a slap in the face to every African-American woman and it dishonors Aaliyah."


In the petition, Boof recalled the recent controversy surrounding the Nina Simone biopic, Nina, in which Zoe Saldana reportedly appeared with darker skin and wore prosthetics around her nose to match Nina Simone's features.

It's no secret that Hollywood and the media have a history of whitewashing women of color. After all, there's a reason why Lupita Nyong'o's ranking in People's Most Beautiful list was so celebrated. And Boof is right that blackface is offensive -- always (Lifetime, please don't do it!).

On the flipside, however, take the example of Maya Rudolph, who is counted among one of the few black female cast members to ever grace SNL. She portrayed every black female icon the show represented during her tenure. There are a host of light-skinned, biracial women in Hollywood who identify as black and whom society sees as black, including Alicia Keys, Halle Berry and Thandie Newton. And, unlike the few actresses of mixed race who are cast as such, like Rashida Jones, Zendaya too is seen by her audience as black, as the daughter of Phil Morris and Carla Renata on her Disney television series. 

Is it fair to say, then, that she is only eligible to play, as Boof argues, singer Cassie or actress Jessica Alba? If Zendaya sees herself as a black woman (though likely her identity is more complicated than that), is it fair for society to tell her that she's not? By discounting Zendaya, Boof and her supporters are telling her, as Kane also noted, that Zendaya isn't "black enough."

Kane, cutting through racial ambiguity, declared, "Zendaya Coleman is a Black woman just as President Obama is a Black man," adding, "Maybe it's time to expand the dialogue about how we perceive inaccuracies in mainstream media and how society distinguishes cultural traits from racial ones."

And the aforementioned Keke Palmer, who has discussed her own struggles with colorism before, responded to the controversy by urging fans to accept Zendaya. She said on Twitter:

"Ppl kill me attacking folks! Zendaya is perfect for Aaliyah. Quit playin'."

"I know from experience that it is not fun being attacked for doing what you love. Watch the movie first!"

The casting decision and subsequent backlash opens up a complex dialogue about what creates our perceptions of race -- and how whiteness is not a static concept -- that's worth having. It's understandable that some are upset with the casting decision -- light-skinned, biracial black women enjoy a privilege in our society that darker-skinned black women don't have. But Zendaya, who identifies as black, has cited Aaliyah as an inspiration, and auditioned among a set of similarly talented and qualified black women, has proven that she's qualified. So let's deal with the real controversy here, which is that the first organization to retell this beloved icon's story is, unfortunately, Lifetime.

This article is related to: Television, Aaliyah, Zendaya Coleman