Earlier this month, Lifetime announced its upcoming Aaliyah: Princess of R&B biopic, which will be based on the best-seller Aaliyah: More Than a Woman by former Time magazine music editor Christopher Farley. According to Lifetime, the movie “follows the beautiful and talented performer’s inspirational journey, from her debut on Star Search at the age of 10 to the challenges she faced during her rise to become the princess of R&B. On Aug. 25, 2001, at the height of her popularity, her life was tragically cut short when a plane carrying the singer and some of her video crew crashed after takeoff from a Bahamian runway.”
Along with announcing the upcoming movie, the network also announced that the lead role was going to Disney star Zendaya Coleman. Coleman, who’s also a singer and actress, starred as Raquel “Rocky” Blue on the hit Disney Channel series Shake It Up Shake It Up. Coleman was also a runner-up on season 16 of Dancing With the Stars.
Not everyone agreed that Coleman would make a good Aaliyah—not because she can’t sing or dance, because she’s already proved that she can do both, but because she’s too light.
But does it really matter that a mixed woman is playing Aaliyah? Or if she’s not exactly the same skin tone as Aaliyah? If you take a look at some of Aaliyah’s photos, it’s not as if Coleman’s and Aaliyah’s complexions are that different.
Then there’s the issue of Aaliyah’s ethnicity. Both of Aaliyah’s parents are black, so to some it’s obvious that the role should have gone to a black actress and not a biracial one.
Last week TMZ caught up with Coleman as she was leaving an airport, and she had a few comments to say about the issues surrounding her complexion and ethnicity. The TMZ reporter asked the actress about the talk surrounding the question: Does color matter?
“Well, a lot of people say that I’m not black enough,” Coleman stated while introducing her father, Kazembe Ajamu, who’s black. “Half-black is just enough. It doesn’t matter what color you are; it’s how you portray the character.”
Coleman also brought up the fact that Angela Bassett portrayed Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, and they looked nothing alike. In defense of his daughter, Ajamu let the reporter know that the film is shooting in the summer, so she’d be able to get some sun and tan in the process and will be dark enough.
The politics of who’s black enough in Hollywood to portray certain roles is always a subject of conversation when it comes to casting. Last year Zoe Saldana caught flak when people felt she robbed other black actresses of the lead role in the Nina Simone biopic.
The issue of color is also brought up when it comes to translating a black character from print or cartoons to the big screen. Years ago, people questioned why Halle Berry secured the role of Storm in the X-Men series, even though the character was drawn as a dark-skinned woman. And most recently, with the announcement of the new Jem live-action movie, the woman cast to play the role of Shana Elmsford, who was a dark-skinned black woman with purple hair, is biracial actress Aurora Perrineau.
Does Coleman’s comment ring true? Is half-black just enough?
Yesha Callahan is editor of The Grapevine and a staff writer at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.