Colorism In Casting: Is Skin Complexion Important To You When It Comes To Casting For Biopics?
By Asha Boston
“So I’m not even being considered to audition for a role because I am ‘too dark’,” tweeted actress Imani Hakim. The former “Everybody Hates Chris” star took to Twitter in mid-July to express her disappointment with the entertainment industry, and to put a spotlight on the issue of colorism in casting. “To think I am almost a perfect match for this role but the slight difference in skin complexion is holding me back I AM mind blown!”
Colorism itself is definitely a mind-blowing concept that continuously shows itself in pop culture. We’ve seen this troubling issue play out in the recent casting controversy for the NWA biopic. Black women and women in general were ranked in alphabetical order based on their features. Women of a lighter complexion were given a B rating while “poor, not in good shape” African-American women of a “medium to dark skin tone” were ranked with a D in the search for extras for the biopic.
Just earlier this month we saw a plethora of Aaliyah and Missy Elliot fans speak out on their disappointment with the casting of Chattrisse Dolabaille (who is of a lighter complexion with curly hair) as Missy Elliott in the upcoming Aaliyah biopic. While there wasn’t much research done or commentary shared on her acting ability, the public made it clear that it will take more than a garbage bag jumpsuit and some finger waves to get Dolabaille anywhere near the likeness of Elliott. It took Black Twitter no time to conjure up the hashtag #LifetimeCastings, which poked fun at the idea of actors being cast as notable figures they look nothing like. As ridiculous of an idea as it may seem for Justin Bieber to play R. Kelly or Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen to play Mary Mary, the trending topic proved that Elliott fans felt somewhat slighted, and moviegoers in general found the casting choice to be a highly questionable one. What’s the excuse for not being able to find an equally talented actress of a darker complexion to take on the role?
This same question was asked in 2012 with the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the biopic Nina. Lisa Simone Kelly, daughter of the late singer/songwriter/pianist expressed her disapproval with Saldana’s casting in an article published for the New York Times:
“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark…Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.”
After a slew of criticism came her way and was aimed at the production as a whole, Saldana opened up about her commitment to the role.
“Just like everybody else I feel very strongly about Nina Simone, and that (this) was a story that needed to be told.
I do believe that if everybody had more information about how this all came to be, it might help. But then again, I’m not here to get the acceptance of people. I’m here to be an artist first.”
A similar criticism about colorism and the importance of skin complexion in casting occurred when Christian Bale was chosen to play Moses, and Joel Edgerton to play Rhamses in the upcoming film, Exodus: Gods and Kings. It popped up again when Jacqueline Fleming was chosen to play Harriet Tubman, and side-eyes were given when Aurora Perrineau was pegged to play Shana in new Jem and the Holograms film. But sometimes in casting, especially for men, complexion differences between an actor and the public figure they are portraying don’t hurt a film. Think of the casting of Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in A Long Walk to Freedom. While his casting raised eyebrows because of his lack of physical similarities with Mandela, his portrayal of the man was applauded, and earned him a Golden Globe nomination. But for the most part, such casting choices aren’t applauded, but rather, balked at. It’s clear that many casting decisions are made in the best interest of helping a film make money, but in the process of doing that, the image of iconic figures are being carelessly altered for a studio’s convenience.
But what are your thoughts? Do you think that it’s important to give roles to people who actually look like the person they’re hoping to portray when it comes to skin complexion?