The Controversy of Complexion: How Latina and Biracial Women Are Portraying Darker Skinned Black Women in Film

Beauty / Film & Animation / July 8, 2014

Whenever the likeness of someone important in pop culture history is being portrayed in film, there is always a certain amount of controversy in regard to who will be able to fill the large shoes in question.

Recently, this topic has gotten a lot of attention due to the issues involved in casting Zendaya Coleman to fill the role of Aaliyah in the film “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B and Zoe Saldana to portray Nina Simone in the much delayed biopic “Nina,” depicting the late songstress’s rise to fame.

Although it’s nothing new for actors to portray characters that they don’t resemble, one has to understand the vast chasm between portraying a character from a book or a screenplay versus someone who actually existed.

Both Nina Simone and Aaliyah were women with darker complexions; particularly, the film “Nina” involves a lot of the struggle that Simone faced due to being a darker black woman.

When I originally heard the casting news,  I understood that perhaps the director had to make a few physical concessions in order to get an actress with as much clout as Saldana.  Then I saw the pictures and couldn’t deny my feelings of offense, but I didn’t know if I could fully justify them.

Originally called Blackface Minstrelsy,  the practice of white women and men painting their faces black in order  to “portray” a black person in the entertainment industry was a common practice that started in the 1830s.  The history behind it is horrifying, yet looking at Saldana, who identifies herself as Dominico-Puerto Rican,  I can’t help but to wonder, will she, too,  be caked in makeup much darker than her actual skin tone  in order to play Nina Simone?

And what does that say about where Hollywood is with casting women with darker complexions–even when a role calls for it?

There’s already much talk about how Hollywood employs only lighter skin actresses as leading ladies, while darker skin actresses are only given supporting roles and small parts in films that depict slavery or hired help like “The Color Purple” or “The Help.”

Take Lupita Nyong’o, who is not only recognized by her talent, but is also one of the very few darker skinned actresses that have gained the attention of movie studios–but only after being cast in film that depicted slavery. Even Steve McQueen, the “12 Years a Slave” director who cast Lupita acknowledged this issue in an interview with New York magazine.

“You know, there’s been a lot said about dark-skinned black actresses and the limitations they have within film. Well, I just hope that directors and other creative people have the idea of putting her in great and interesting projects, because she’s extraordinary,” the director said.

So, why would Zaldana, who doesn’t even identify herself as black, play a woman, whose darker skin color is part of her story and journey?

For Zendaya, who is biracial, the controversy and backlash was so strong that she backed out of the film before shooting  even commenced.

Saldana seems to think that it’s all about perspective. She shared her thoughts on the issue during a 2013 pre-Oscar event: “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,” she said. “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.”

Perhaps things won’t change until Hollywood expands their casting circle to include women of darker complexions.

What do you think?


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Saron Olkaba
Saron Olkaba
Saron is a writer and student born in Ethiopia and raised in Washington, DC. She is incapable of keeping a phone for longer than a few months, exclusively wears Miss. Dior Cherie, and her guilty pleasures include any novel written by V.C. Andrews (don’t judge), Essie’s “Little Brown Dress", and Stoli. She is currently obsessed with the poetry of Edmund Wilson and The Arctic Monkey’s latest album “AM”.




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The Controversy of Complexion: How Latina and Biracial Women Are Portraying Darker Skinned Black Women in Film