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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