Colorism In Casting: Is Skin Complexion Important To You When It Comes To Casting For Biopics?

August 19, 2014  |  



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?

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  • Lennon Jones

    who cares why should we care they don’t pay me I aint getting a peice of the pie it won’t effect me one way or the other she could be green or blue don’t care I think we as black people got allot of other things to worry about than what color someone will be in a movie that really won’t be on there life even though that what they will puch to make you beleive this is not important at all

    • disqus_ZsmDHbsJLs

      You can sit there and think that all you want; Yes, it does effect us in some way or another. It is just like when a black person commits a crime, all blacks are judged; when a black person achieve something great, blacks get the glory of it. Look at Oprah who is a BILLIONAIRE. Let a black person steal of a store and then let Oprah come in the next day unknowing to the people she is Oprah. I bet you Oprah will get treated as if she is going to steal even though she can buy the place. But a white person can steal but the next white person that walks in the store will still get treated with respect.

  • Stacy D. Smith


  • FromUR2UB

    Frankly, I believe skin complexion should matter. Sometimes, the way a person sees the world and who they are, are formed by their experiences living in their skin. A really good actor can portray someone whom they look nothing like. But, I like accuracy. I like when casting directors try to be as detailed and true to fact as possible. It enhances the story because the visual adds credibility.

    • Lele

      totally, but for this tv movie for Aaliyah whatever but Zoe Saldana playing the iconic Nina Simone come one they could of done better than that and had Viola Davis do it! Not just because she is dark-skin she is built like Nina was and not like a stick figure. And Instead of dressing Zoe up in horrible blackface and all that why go through all that trouble and just get a dark-skin actress!

  • lockstress

    Uhm….SHE IS IN BLACKFACE!!! Hellloooooo.
    Would they cast Idris as George Washington? Or Wesley Snipes as Mozart? C’mon.

  • guest

    if you are trying to portray a character I do think looks help but shouldn’t be the sole factor but we have to remember although some can say looks don’t matter then why not just cast whites as blacks, blacks as whites & vice verse. Hollywood has their own agenda and it is to hold up the white is right mentality in all races and the blacks continue to fall for it. SMH I think the black culture needs to get rid of racism in their own culture first as blacks feel and treat lighter complexion people better than dark. Some blacks even go through obstacles to have a baby with another race just to have a mixed race child.

    • disqus_ZsmDHbsJLs

      Exactly. And some blacks date other groups because they want their kids to have “good hair”. Stupid. I have always said that “Good hair” is hair that does not fall out.

  • kelley

    If you’re a good actor looks doesn’t matter , but color is a factor !! Hollywood would never cast Gabrielle Union as Lena Horne, so why put Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone? What next Aretha Franklin being portrayed by Halle Berry?, Cecily Tyson being portraying by LisaRaye? I feel like the execs think if they put light skin actors in these roles the movie will be more mainstream.

    • tracy

      Actually Halle Berry was offered the Aretha Franklin role by Aretha and Hollywood herself. Halle Berry graciously turned it down, Halle is very smart.

    • tracy

      That would not make sense because they painted Zoe, darker so the movie would still have two dark people. Zoe is just a big name now. They could have case Lupita Nyongo as Nina really.

  • Katiopa

    You shouldn’t complain.That’s what happen when you call Black everyone with a drop of “black blood”.
    White people knew better.

    • Live_in_LDN

      What are you ranting about?

      • enlightenment

        Katiopa’s onto something here. Casting directors think they can fill their “black quota” by casting mixed-race women. And we can’t really turn around and say “Hey, that’s poor representation!” Because they’ll snidely say, “What ever do you mean? She’s black, isn’t she? *Invokes one-drop rule*”

        • Annalytical

          That’s why it’s so important to expose colorism as an increasingly prevalent form of racism – especially in the film industry.

        • guest

          Exactly! I simply refuse to accept the idea that a white person can create a black child.

          Just like whites refuse to believe that a black person can create a white child.

          • Brytt

            But a black person can create a black child. We are creators of color 🙂

    • cece

      Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Truth! Some BW want to so bad claim biracials as Black, and then wonder why our image is being taken over by them. Smh. I will say what I’ve been saying — biracial is not Black. End of story.

    • Dee

      I totally get what you are saying. I see this often in commercials especially. Producers use a mixed race child to fill their “black quota”.

      What I find interesting is that white ppl came up with the one drop rule yet black ppl refuse to let it go. If you are 75% white and 25% black, I don’t think you should portray someone in a biopic who is 100% (or close enough to it) black.

  • guest

    I love how some black women complain about colorism and being erased by mixed race women and then, in the next breath, encourage each other to mate with white men and create more mixed race daughters.

    • disqus_ZsmDHbsJLs

      I agree but Black men are the worst when it comes to this kind of thing. This just shows we as blacks has some serious issues.

  • Taneesha Culture Clash Thomas

    Depends on if the chracters features or complexion is relative to their life story…in the case of nina simone very much so…missy not so much

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  • Live_in_LDN

    Skin complexion SHOULDN’T matter in casting but c’mon, this isn’t never, neverland. The fact is, in entertainment, the darker you are, the more limited your opportunities are. So when a role comes up that is specifically for a darker actor or actress (Nina Simone for example) but they still manage to not give that dark skinned actress that opportunity, it does add insult to injury and raises eyebrows.