Colorism Issues On-Screen: If Zoe Saldana Is A No No To Play Nina Simone, Is Lenny Kravitz A Hell No To Play Marvin Gaye?

November 21, 2012  |  

Light-skinned Rocker Lenny Kravitz is rumored to be playing the late great dark brown skinned “Sexual Healing” crooner, Marvin Gaye, in a biopic about his life, this according to published reports.

According to The Huffington Post:

The project is directed by Julian Temple, known for his documentary “London: The Modern Babylon” as well as “Absolute Beginners.” Temple also has plenty of experience with bringing music to the big screen, having directed a number of movies about the Sex Pistols. The Gaye movie will center on the soul singer’s later years. Gaye, as NME notes, battled alcoholism and nasty tax issues while living in London.

Okay so let’s get to the heart of the issue: they couldn’t cast an actor/singer with a similar hue and physical features to carry the role of Gaye?

Yes, we are discussing this again, especially in lieu of Hollywood’s soon-to-be-released biopic of Nina Simone, a dark-skinned singer, pianist, and civil rights activist, whose liken will be attempted on screen by the brown-skinned yet racially ambiguous Zoe Saldana. Pictures have been circulating around online showing Saldana on the set of the film in darker foundation and wearing a prosthetic nose and fake teeth, which all had to be added to mimic Simone’s naturally African features.  This issue, for obvious reasons, has struck a chord with many folks in the black community who feel that the production team behind this flick should have gone with an actress of the same shade and physical characteristics.

Let’s be real: actresses like Kimberly Elise, Adepero Oduye (Pariah) and Viola Davis are just a few names who are as talented as a Saldana yet better physically matched to be cast as Simone. The production team could have hired one of them and saved the blackface we see in those pictures.

“I hear you but why is it that nobody had a problem when Laurence Fishburne played Ike Turner or Denzel played Malcolm X? I understand why you ladies are upset but then again aren’t we being a bit hypocritical?” asked some dude I was debating with recently via a Facebook thread.  It’s a provocative question considering that when it comes to public discussion around colorism, the emphasis is mostly on how black women are aesthetically perceived, especially through the lense of color. Yet self-esteem issues related to colorism – particularly the whitewashing of darker skinned people in the media – also does have an impact on black men that’s not being discussed.

Actor Taye Diggs spoke candidly about insults he incurred as a child for the color of his skin, particularly being passed over for light-skinned boys by young women in high school. But he did say that seeing more darker-skinned men on television helped to raise his self-esteem. “I’m still trying to figure out how this came to be. For me, when I saw Tyson Beckford hailed as this beautiful man by all people, that caused a shift in my being. And I remember literally waking up and walking the streets feeling a little bit more proud,” he told My Brown Baby.

However, I don’t think that women care more about it when colorism strikes out at women or that women tend to be more protective of our image, thus more vocal about any attempts to misrepresent it. I know there were a few eyebrows raised, including my own, at the casting of light-skinned, gray-eyed Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela in the soon-to-be-released Winnie. Therefore, it wouldn’t be fair to say that we as a community have been totally obtuse to the whitewashing of black men in the media. And it doesn’t mean that we critique these images less, if anything, we critique them more.

And just to be clear: this is more than a light-skinned/dark-skinned thing.  It is an issue about continuity.  Actors, who play real life historical figures, should probably resemble the person they are trying to recreate on screen, including black people. Unlike popular opinion, black folks are not interchangeable. That’s just like remaking Lassie, the old film and television show about a smart white boy saving Collie dog, and casting a pit bull named Cocaine in his place. Even if the show is remotely entertaining, we all know that this dog ain’t Lassie.

And Kravitz is definitely that pitbull. When I think of Marvin Gaye, I think of “I Want You”; “Distant Lover”; his many duets with Tammi Terrell, his Trouble Man soundtrack; his panty-tossing/drawers-dropping rendition of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All Star Game and his chocolate-complexion on the cover of the What’s Going On album. I just don’t see Kravitz being that. Now Neo-soul singer Bilal or Jesse L. Martin, who was once rumored to play Gaye in another biopic?  I can see that.

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  • Glenn Coco

    No. I need Hollywood to get it together and put some glasses on. Having at least some resemblance to the person you will be portraying should be sort of a requirement when re-enacting someone’s life no?

  • NeaJ

    Lenny as Marvin? That’ll be interesting if nothing else!!

  • anonymous

    See “DoinMe’s” response. It’s not just about Zoe not looking like Nina. Zoe is the anti-Nina because of what Nina stood for, what her life was about. Period. It’s not about skin color and I wish people would stop reducing it to that. The problem is much bigger.

  • Yah

    To me as long as they are Black and at least slightly resemble the person they’re portraying, I don’t care. I mean Marcus Chong, who is Black but is half Asian, played Huey Newton. So what? I agree that they should’ve had ZS play the role without prosthetics and just be the natural Black woman she is, but then y’all would’ve complained about that too. And yes, colorism affects Black women more than Black men because Black men wield colorism and color-hatred like a weapon against Black women. Thus, it’s very hard not to feel sensitive about our color until we stop listening to Black men (the fools).

  • scandalous7

    Fck! I wish I didnt care about this issue but I still do. I would love to get over, I really would.

  • DoinMe

    I think the casting of Nina Simone was important because of who she was and what she stood for. Her dark skin color, being a black woman in the 60s, and her struggles is what defined her music and activism, so casting the right person should have been high priority. Zoe Saldana flies in the face of her struggles. Now, Marvin Gay was about his music and struggles with drugs and money, so I don’t think Lenny playing Marvin is bad, although I can think of several others who could possibly pull it off. Unlike Nina, in my opinion, whoever plays Marvin, skin shade/color isn’t really that important, as long as the person is believable.

    • Guest360

      I’m sorry but since when was it a requirement to share the experiences of the person you’re portraying? They are actors. By definition, they are required to ACT as if they have experienced the things they are portraying. So what if Zoe never had the same struggles? As long as she’s able to depict NINA’S story and not her own, nothing else should matter.

  • lalallee

    It’s not about people being bad that someone slightly lighter is playing marvin gaye…the reason why people are mad about zoe saldana is because she is not black…she is hispanic.
    and even if people still consider her black she identifies herself as hispanic. She’s peurto rican/columbian.

    • lalallee


    • Guest360

      Actually, she classifies herself as Black Latina. And I think you’re misinformed about what classifies one as hispanic and their nationality. There’s a difference lol.

    • Yah

      She is Black. She looks Black. She is from a country where Blacks are a large part of the population, and she is proud of it and has said so in interviews.I mean, really? Do you all really think the only Black people on earth live in America and Africa? LOL. Being Black is not mutually exclusive from being Latina.

      ** There are non-Black and white Latinas, just as there are non-Black and white Americans, and there are Black Latinas just as there are Black Americans. **

      The Latinas that usually get thrown in our faces by Hollywood and Black men are generally the non-Black and white Latinas – thus the knee jerk reaction to anyone from Latin America. But just as America gives the most positive and frequent visibility to white women, they use the same rules for other races too – extremely light and white Latinas mainly get the visibility and preferential treatment, so those are the ones we mainly see. ZS broke the mold by being one of the few Black Latinas to get highly visible roles, and still be considered Black not exclusive of being Latin.

  • The Marvin Bio and Nina Bio will be critically and commercially panned

  • IllyPhilly

    Okay, okay am I the only one that doesn’t see Lenny Kravitz too light to play Marvin? And what era Marvin? Because I see Usher as 60’s Marvin.

    • Usher??? really???

      • IllyPhilly

        LMAO. He did good on American Dream.

    • scandalous7


  • Guest360

    Honestly? I’m tired of this topic. I get that people wanted someone darker to play Nina Simone. Fact of the matter is the part went to Zoe. Watch the movie. Don’t watch the movie. But what purpose does it serve to continue to talk about something that isn’t changing? It certainly isn’t propelling the conversation of light vs dark skinned. You just have people being mean to each other for no reason other than skin color. It’s nonsense. Black is black to me. That’s not to say that we don’t have an issue when it comes to darker skinned women being represented in the media but I’m not going to down a woman for getting a part just because of her skin color. It’s horrible the amount of hate she’s been getting lately….and she’s not even light skinned!! That’s the funny part if you ask me.

    • IllyPhilly

      “It’s horrible the amount of hate she’s been getting lately….and she’s
      not even light skinned!! That’s the funny part if you ask me.” I hear you! I wonder did White folks get this mad when The Rock played that part in Grid Iron which was really about a white guy or when Halle Berry played that teacher who was really white.

    • victoria

      Great comment.

  • fivesstar

    I’m confused as to why the title of this blog references Zoe Kravitz. What does this have to do with her?

  • Miss_Understood

    I believe it is a double-standard, but I also understand why dark skinned women are more sensitive about this topic. They almost have to be in a society where, in terms of aesthetic appeal, it is often everyone against them: Black men, lighter black women, white men & white women, etc.

    It is not that dark skin men don’t struggle with not being regarded as a standard of beauty, it is that they don’t struggle with it nearly as much or as strongly as dark skin black women do. Dark and Light Black men are often seen as “universally” attractive while not all shades of Black women share the same benefit. Women of all races/ethnicity drool over Michael Ealy & Idris Elba equally, but, at least it seems, that not the same amount of men are drooling over both Beyonce & Kelly Rowland with the same intensity…

    • factfinder

      Miss_Understood. I’m unsure of which double standard you are referring to and to what topic deep-skinned women are sensitive to. But sensitivty is neither an issue nor a factor. Sensitivity used in racially charged discussions to me always diminished the impact of racism. The real problem here is the continued rejection, bashing and white washing of Black-skinned women in the black community and American society. I argue that dark-skinned peoples portrayal of lighter people hardly defines a double standard considering it seldom occurs in our society. I am a brown-skinned, African-American woman and when we are portrayed positively you better be so gorgeous even white people can’t deny you. And that circumstance is rare too. We have ALL been brainwashed to believe lighter is better and brighter; and no matter how beautiful, intelligent, and morally upright so many black-skinned women really are our Jewish controlled country is programmed to believe otherwise.

      • Miss_Understood

        The double standard I am referring to is gender-based, i.e. dark skin men & dark skin women being portrayed in film by light skin men and women. Basically, I believe dark skin women are more vocal when it comes to topics such as this because they have to be in a society where they are constantly undervalued-now, who wouldn’t be “sensitive” to that??

        • factfinder

          The Oprah Winfrey experiment on race showed how vocal and aggressive and enraged white people were after 20 minutes of being told that blue eyes were inferior-20 minutes. Even after they were told it was an experiment they could not “get over it.”

      • factfinder

        very true

      • factfinder

        Sensitivity is like the word perception; whenever black people speak about racism which is very real in this country like it or not, we are told it is our perception or we are overly sensitive. White people on the other hand are always taken at their word. Black people play the race card and white people know what it is like to be black and they tell us all the time we are mistken or play this card. These code words were manufactured at the highest levels for the average person to throw out there whenever the truth hurts. Never mind that we are the ones hurt.

  • lovely99

    Its a shame that after slavery we are still in chains of colorism. If more black filmakers would rise up we can make our own movies and not worry about this. Instead of attacking the actors or the filmakers, we need to create more of our own films and studios. Some may not like Tyler Perry, but he has the right idea. SN: I have noticed that everyone’s definition of light skin and dark skin is different. I dont think Zoe Salanda is light skin, maybe its because I am from the South. I consider her brown skin and she has stated she is black several times. I think we spend more time hating each other instead of building each other up. # your skin color should never matter, its all about the heart.

    • Yah

      I agree. Zoe Saldana is definitely not light in my city. She’s like Ciara’s color – brown. She’s darker than Tyra Banks, Will Smith etc and neither of them are light-skinned – they’re caramel colored. – pictures and stage light can make her skin look lighter, but you can see her true shading. I stopped calling people dark-skinned or light-skinned because it caused too much confusion. One persons’ dark-skin/light skin is different than another persons. ** shrugs **

      I’ve been told by some people I met from Florida that I’m not dark-skinned, which is news to me – i’ve always seen myself as such. And I’ve knowN some dark-skinned men who literally thought they were 3 or 4 shades lighter than they actually were – wishful thinking in my opinion. But either way, different places, different people, different perspectives, that’s all.

  • polymathk

    The real issue here is not hue, but the difference between european and african features. Denzel and Lawrence are black men with African facial features and body typess. The reason we don’t question when they were cast in those roles is because they represented black men and they look like black men. Zoe Saldona has european features, period. She could be chocolate brown but continuity for this role would still be compromised because her features are not African. Thin lips, frail build, small nose…all of those things are the POLAR OPPOSITE of Nina.

    • Ashanti

      I’m sorry but I have to disagree with you, not every full blooded African has a big nose or big lips or a certain body type. That’s stereotyping. I’m a full blooded Nigerian with a small nose, petite build, and medium sized lips. Keep in mind that sub saharan Africans are the MOST genetically diverse group in the entire world. That means we can have an unlimited amount of features. Please toss your ignorance somewhere else.

    • Yah

      first of all, if the features are on a black/african-descended person, then they aren’t european features. period. secondly, if you look at africa, features range from very broad to very slim, and in many cases the slim features are on very dark skinned africans. so those who claim slim features are european are gravely misinformed. there is nothing european about ZS’s features.

      i think black people have been brainwashed to automatically think that anybody considered pretty by “the mainstream” has thin “european” features. that’s stupid! the stupidest thing about that is that most black americans have such a wide range of features, from very thin to broad plus ZS has a very wide nose, particularly at the bridge. on the other hand, mary j. blige has a sleder nose, as well as jeniffer hudson and the late whitney houson. all this european features bullsh*t is just that – BS.

  • KIR12

    Nina Simone was not dark. She was a brown skin woman with African features. If you look at more recent color pictures of her as an older lady, you can clearly see her complexion. Furthermore, Nina Simones daughter is lighter than Zoe! I thinks she’s possibly bi-racial. Under black women standards it would be an insult for her daughter to portray her!

    • Yah

      Exactly! Her daughter is sandy haired and sandy skinned, and Simone wasn’t as dark as those old 1960’s and 1970’s photos made her look. They had poor lighting back then, so the pictures were never right. These weren’t digicams, you know. I think those who argued against ZS should be absolutely embarrassed for making themselves sound so ridiculous.

    • TrappedInParadise

      Why is she is black face though is skin tone doesn’t matter? When Angela played Tina they slapped a wig on her and called it a day. If its so important the actress be dark (hence the black face), then get a dark actress. No?

  • Nope. Lenny can act and very well… Zoe; not so much.

  • Laine

    And about that…”actresses like Kimberly Elise, Adepero Oduye(Pariah) and Viola Davis are better physically matched to be cast as Simone” remark. How does the author and others know that they were not asked? Maybe they turned down the role.. ! Maybe they were too expensive…! You just don’t know! This whole skinhue thing has got to stop.. again.. BLACK is BLACK ! I’m starting to think that the people that have the most issue with this dark skin/ light skin thing, are African Americans themselves. And that’s just really sad, considering were living in the year 2012.

    • Yeah, that girl from Pariah did an exceptional job as that role! She did a good job in Steel Magnolias too.

    • The Roots

      That sounds great and all, but your appearance does effect the way that people interact with you. You can’t have a pencil thin woman playing Monique, since part of who she is, is being a bigger woman and a lot of who she is may have something to do with being a bigger woman. Nina was who she was in part because of her dark skin, and how people reacted to that, and to leave that out would be leaving out part of the story.

      • Laine

        I understand what you are trying to say, but Zoe Saldana is not the exact opposite of Nina Simone (like in your example thin vs “fat”). To me, Zoe Saldana is also a black woman, she’s afro latina!! I’m not American, I’m also black but from South America. Where I come from, black is black! And somebody else mentioned typical African facial features that Zoe does not have…, I’m sorry but there are different West- African tribes, and they all have different facial features, different skin hues. I have the feeling that we as a people diminish being “fully black” only to a certain skintone hue. So when you are a bit lighter, we assume that you are mixed are something. That’s incorrect. To me being black is way more than “just” a skintone.

        • The Roots

          Having Dark Skin is a part of the story, not just being Black. Too many rappers brag about “yellow bones” and “red bones” for people to say that hue doesn’t mean anything. I’m not saying Zoe Saldana is not Black, she is. But Nina’s DARK brown skin is apart of who she is, and a part of the reason she was the way she was. Appearance is important. And they have Zoe Saldana doing this movie is Blackface… even tho she’s Black

    • Yah

      And Kimberly Elise looks nothing like Nina Simone, and Kimberly doesn’t match in look to Adepero Oduye or Viola Davis either – that’s like a joke! All 3 of the look completely different, so people need to stop.

  • no one complained when denzel played malcolm and lawrence played ike… NOW whats the issue with zoe and lenny?

    • thats because denzel is a damn good actor. The problem with zoe is the fact that along with the fact she Looks NOTHING like NINA, her acting is very mediocre, the film script isn’t accurate, and nina’s own daughter, nor the Nina Simone estate approves or authorizes this film.

      • I cant understand how a non-musical actress is going to be able to possess the soul and rhythm necessary for the role.

    • The Roots

      I read Malcolm’s biography, and in it, he shows how having light skin, affected his relationship with his mother and father.

      Denzel did an excellent job, but that movie, wasn’t the FULL Malcolm X story

  • Ladybug94

    Zoey Kravitz was not scheduled to play Nina Simone, Zoe Saldana was. Although I like Lenny Kravitz’s music, I just can’t see him playing Marvin Gaye. I think the guy who used to be in Law and Order should play Marvin. I can’t remember his name but he was also in the Broadway play Rent.

  • autumnbreeze

    Honestly aside from the “hue” I can see LK playing Marvin BUT….I see Jesse Martin in that role more…jmo

    • Ladybug94

      That’s him. That’s the guy I was thinking of. He would be excellent playing Marvin.