Zendaya As Aaliyah? Zoe As Nina? 15 Controversial Casting Choices

June 20, 2014  |  
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When it comes to casting roles some actors seem tailor made for the parts they’re given – think Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray, Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris in Training Day and Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. But every once in a while casting directors make controversial choices that are sometimes a success and sometimes a complete fail. Here are 15 controversial casting choices that raised some eyebrows and really got people talking.

Zendaya Coleman as Aaliyah

Earlier this week, news broke that Disney star Zendaya Coleman had been cast to play Aaliyah in a new Lifetime biopic, and the controversy has already been real… and relentless. Though the 17-year old is a pretty talented singer and dancer, everyone seems to be wondering whether she looks enough like Aaliyah and if her acting chops are even good enough for the role.

And of course the fact that Aaliyah’s family is upset about the movie being created in the first place isn’t helping Zendaya’s cause at all.

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone

Opponents of Zoe Saldana playing the late jazz legend – which include Nina’s own brother – have been quick to point out that the brown-skinned Afro-Latina actress looks nothing like Nina Simone, doesn’t sing, and has no connections to jazz music whatsoever. Some people have even said that casting someone of her complexion to play the legendary singer and classical pianist, who was known to speak out about colorism, is an insult to Nina’s legacy. Ouch.


Lil’ Mama as Lisa Left Eye Lopes

TLC’s biopic CrazySexyCool featured raptress Lil Mama as the late Lisa Left Eye. Naturally, when that was revealed the whole production was shaded for casting an arguably less accomplished rapper with no acting experience to play such an iconic role. But Lil’ Mama silenced the haters after slaying her part and earning major respect for her efforts.

Keke Palmer as Chilli

Picking Left Eye’s character wasn’t the only tough casting decision for the TLC story. When it came to filling the role of Chilli, Keke Palmer faced an equal amount of criticism. Many people felt that Keke didn’t look enough like Chilli for the role to be believable. An opinion that, of course, proved to be false. Just like her castmate, Keke murdered her role and helped make CrazySexyCool the highest rated television premiere of 2013, with 4.5 million viewers.

Idris Elba as Heimdall

Apparently when some people think “mythological Norse god” the last person they think of is Idris Elba –- or anyone else of African descent, for that matter. In 2011, Idris faced a ton of criticism for his portrayal of Heimdall in the comic book adaptation Thor, but he quickly shut it down, saying “We have a man who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley.”

Well, at least we enjoyed Idris in the movie.

Amandla Stenberg as Rue

Although it was the third-highest grossing film debut in North American history, The Hunger Games was not without its fair share controversy, most of which was centered on then 13-year old Amandla Stenberg, who played the role of Rue. Soon after the movie’s release, Amandla’s casting provoked more than a few racist tweets claiming Rue was supposed to be a white character (despite her being described as having “dark skin” in the book), and was somehow ruined by a little black girl. These same racists detractors also took issue with Lenny Kravitz being cast as Cinna, unsurprisingly.

Jennifer Lopez as Selena

Jennifer Lopez may be one of the biggest celebrities on the planet, but in 1997, the Puerto Rican-American relative newcomer to the entertainment industry playing Selena, the Mexican-American Tejana sweetheart, seemed like a slap in the face to her fans. Of course we now know that J.Lo was amazing in the role, resulting in a film that many have considered to be a “celebration of Selena’s life.”

Daniel Craig as James Bond

When it was announced that Daniel Craig would carry the torch as the new Bond the whole world seemed to let out a collective groan. Craig’s blond hair, light eyes and short stature were nothing like the dark, suave and sophisticated Bonds of the past. Three films, billions of dollars in film earnings and multiple awards later, we’re willing to bet the haters have nothing to say about Craig now.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher

Fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series were notably disappointed to learn that Tom Cruise would take on the role of the 6’5” blond-haired, scruffy hero that’s been described in the books, despite looking nothing like him. To address the haters, Child explained, “With another actor you might get 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher. With Tom, you’ll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height.” Book fans obviously disagreed – Jack Reacher became Cruise’s lowest grossing film of the past decade.

Mos Def as Ford Prefect

Mos Def being cast to play Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was controversial because not only was the character largely perceived as being white, but Mos Def was notably too cool to play the foolish, slacker role producers picked him for.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers

Natalie Portman has proven herself to be an A-list actress with roles in big budget productions like V For Vendetta and The Other Boleyn Girl, but when it came to the credibility of her portraying ballerina Nina Sayers in the haunting drama Black Swan, critics – and even Natalie’s body double – just weren’t having it. They argued that Natalie’s lack of dance experience made her a poor choice for the role. Director Darren Aronofsky came to Natalie’s defense, arguing that she put a lot of time and work into the part and 90% of film footage is all her. In spite of the criticism, Natalie went on to win a Best Actress Oscar for the role.

Renee Zellwegger as Bridget Jones

News that American born Renee Zellwegger would be playing the beloved Bridget Jones, a frumpy, single British woman, did not sit well with fans of the original book, most of whom expected the character to be too “Hollywood” looking and acting. But Renee proved everyone wrong with a performance that was so perfectly Bridget she had to be Oscar nominated for the role.

Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl

Despite a number of notable mixed race and black actresses in the biz, the role of biracial French freelance reporter Mariane Pearl went to none other than Angelina Jolie in the 2007 drama A Mighty Heart. Many black campaign groups were quick to point out that the casting choice was whitewashing, but Mrs. Pearl supported Jolie, saying “I’m delighted Angelina Jolie will be playing my role. I deeply admire her work.”

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi

Since its airing, Mickey’s role as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s has sparked outrage, even resulting in a petition, protest and subsequent boycott of the film by an Asian-American activist group.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan

Many critics of 2010’s Prince of Persia claim the film is severely whitewashed for its casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as an Iranian character. Independent filmmaker Jehanzeb Dar even went so far as to say the movie is “not only insulting to Persians, it’s also insulting to white people. It’s saying white people can’t enjoy movies unless the protagonist is white.”

What do you think? Does Dar have a point?

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