Disney star and fledgling recording artist Zendaya Coleman has been tapped for the coveted lead role of the late songstress and dancer Aaliyah Haughton in an upcoming biopic. Haughton was killed in a plane crash along with eight others at the height of her stardom in 2001. The highly anticipated biopic "Aaliyah: Princess of R&B" (working title) is set to air on Lifetime this fall and is based off of Christopher Farley's bestselling biography "Aaliyah: More Than a Woman."
The announcement has sparked debate in the blogosphere and online, with some expressing frustration that the fair skinned Zendaya - who has an African American father and a Caucasian mother - is a poor casting choice because she "looks like a Latina" and Aaliyah had a darker complexion.
Zendaya expressed her excitement about the role on Twitter:
"She's (Aaliyah) been an inspiration and influence in my who career, her talent shines brighter than ever, all I wanna do is honor her... there will never be another Aaliyah, I just hope to share her beautiful story, and make her proud up in heaven."
In her next post, Zendaya appeared direct in addressing the nay-tweeters:
"I'm just a 17 year old girl who got cast to play one of her biggest inspirations #positive."
The posts garnered streams of support from her Twitter followers (Zendaya has just short of 4.5 million), encouraging the young performer to follow her dreams and "never mind the haters."
Though only seventeen, Zendaya has made a name for herself in the entertainment industry. She began singing, acting and dancing at an early age, performing hip hop dance routines with the group Future Shock Oakland. She earned a 2nd place position on ABC's Dancing With The Stars and was the show's youngest contestant. Last year, Zendaya's self-titled debut album peaked at number 51 on Billboard 200, and its lead single "Replay" is RIAA certified platinum. Her role as Rocky Blue on the Disney series "Shake It Up!" was followed by a role in "Frenemies" - a Disney Channel original movie. She'll star in another Disney Channel original series "K.C. Undercover" and Disney Channel original movie "Zapped," both premiering this summer. 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.
Hollywood has been criticized since its inception for its failure to cast people of color in major roles, and while network television is more diverse, the problem of inaccurate portrayals and under-representation is rightfully a point of contention among minorities. Images have meaning because perception is reality, and while we may not all be in the position to dictate how our stories are told doesn't mean that it matters any less. It matters for some more than others.
Take the recent example of actress Zoe Saldana being cast in the biopic about the late jazz icon, Nina Simone. A Change.org petition began circulating demanding the replacement of the Afro-Latina actress with "an actress who actually looks like Nina Simone." For production of the film, Saldana's skin was darkened and her nose altered with prosthesis. Online users shared passionate opinions about the casting:
Wishfulthinking: "... they needed a big name to carry the film - and good on them for doing a biopic on a strong (and iconoclastic) black female. Shame on them for choosing such a light-skinned, conventionally pretty actress, though. Part of Simone's whole identity was that she was a genius, dark-skinned and husky-voiced... all the things mainstream society deemed unacceptable of women."
Usedtobesheababylv: "For me, casting Saldana is worse than not doing the movie at all. There is a clear message here: Upholding the laws of colorism is more important than telling this woman's story with any accuracy. This woman was too dark and too African-looking in life for some people, and she is still too dark and too African-looking in death for her own story, though her skin color and features were integral to her life story and how it unfolded. It is insulting to Ms. Simone's memory, and a blatant slap in the face to Black women in general."
Saldana responded to the controversy:
"The reality is what keeps me focused and what kept me from I guess getting stressed or being hurt by the comments is that I'm doing it for my sisters... I'm doing it for my brothers. I don't care who tells me that I am not this and I am not that. I know who I am and I know what Nina Simone means to me. So that is my truth and that set me free."
Zendaya Coleman is talented and a hard worker - should she be denied what could very well be the role of a lifetime just because (though she is in fact Black) some view her as "not Black enough"? While her skin may be fair due to her bi-racial heritage, by national definition, Zendaya Coleman is a Black woman just as President Obama is a Black man. 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.