Commentary: Why Fans Turned Against Zoe Saldana, Zendaya

Casting the actresses doomed the biopics of Nina Simone and Aaliyah.

Posted: 07/09/2014 12:15 PM EDT

The internet giveth and the internet taketh away. No one knows this better than Zoe Saldana and Disney star Zendaya Coleman. The actresses each experienced unprecedented backlash when they were chosen to play Nina Simone and Aaliyah, respectively, in biopics on the iconic singers.

In this age of Twitter, Facebook and Change.org, fans have more of a say than ever in decisions of casting — traditionally reserved for the inner circles of Hollywood. When those decisions involve race, the dialogue can get heated and uncomfortable. 

In late 2012, news leaked that Dominican and Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana would portray Nina Simone in director Cynthia Mort’s Nina.  Before Mort or producer Jimmy Iovine could even confirm or deny the news, the Internet was ablaze with criticism. Bloggers were ranting, tweets were fired like missiles and an online petition calling for Mort to “replace Zoe Saldana with an actress that actually looks like Nina Simone” garnered over 2,000 digital signatures in under 24 hours.

Flash forward two years later, and another casting controversy with a similar tone has the blogosphere fired up once again. This time, the target is Zendaya Coleman, a 17-year-old Disney star who was cast as the late R&B icon Aaliyah for an unauthorized television biopic.

Like Saldana, the decision to cast Zendaya has caused a stir mostly because the biracial actress is perceived to be lighter-skinned than the legend she was tasked to embody. This time — perhaps taking a lesson from Saldana’s doomed Nina — the network producing the film decided to cut their losses, putting production on indefinite hold. This didn’t sit well with producer Debra Martin Chase. “Honestly, I think it’s ridiculous. What does that mean? What does it mean to be Black enough?” she said to Entertainment Weekly in response to the fan outrage that killed the project.

Chase raises an interesting question. At a time when the Black community is lobbying Hollywood to recognize its own colorism, isn’t this kind of outrage a form of “reverse colorism”? The answer is, evidently, it depends. Many saw the casting of Zendaya as the “Disney-fication” of Aaliyah, whose success was particularly resonant because she achieved it on her own terms as a flawed, vulnerable and envelope-pushing Black woman. The late singer had to overcome enough racial bias as she climbed the charts that she shouldn't be whitewashed (or “light-washed”) posthumously.

The casting of comparatively light-skinned and fine-boned Saldana as Nina Simone angered many, particularly because Simone’s dark skin and unconventional features were some of her most defining characteristics — and something the late singer praised in her music. No matter how much dark makeup or how many prosthetics producers throw on Saldana, the decision to overlook so many talented dark-skinned actresses — Viola Davis and Adepero Oduye are just a couple of names suggested by fans — in favor of the Avatar star felt like taking two steps back in the fight to eradicate colorism from Hollywood. That it happened on Nina Simone’s watch is insult to injury. Would Nina be happy? As we all know, her daughter isn't.  

The families of the respective subjects of the biopics were just as outraged by the casting decisions — for Nina and Aaliyah, the families were not involved and found out about the projects via press releases. Simone Kelly, Nina Simone’s daughter, immediately took to the singer’s official Facebook page to voice her discontent with Saldana. “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” she wrote. “Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.”

Similarly, a representative from Aaliyah’s family tweeted, “I am angry that the movie is being made without the family’s permission.” That said, the family member did say, diplomatically, that fans should refrain from taking their anger out on the young actress.

So, Hollywood, what is the lesson to be learned from these two doomed projects? It’s that, in this day and age, fans have the power to make or break a project, especially if it involves a treasured icon. Had social media been a factor when Diana Ross was cast as Billie Holiday (a controversy for its time) or Angela Bassett was chosen to play Tina Turner, would those projects have been made? Luckily, those actresses never found out — and both received Oscar nominations.

Of course, the support of fans and family can’t guarantee a film will do justice to its subject, nor do they always know what’s best when it comes to crafting a compelling story. But, as these examples prove, fans are adept at sniffing out when Hollywood conventions like “light-washing” are masqueraded as creative freedom — and they’re not having it.

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(Photos from left: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images, Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images for BET)

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