Zendaya responds to criticism that she’s ‘not black enough’ to play Aaliyah


Last week when I wrote about Zendaya Coleman landing the role of Aaliyah, I figured it was a one-off story on the topic. Why? It’s a freaking Lifetime movie. This isn’t a major theatrical release or a small indie film that will play in LA and NYC or even on VOD. Still … the buzz hasn’t stopped, and a lot of it is very negative. Zendaya already addressed the criticism on Twitter, but it must be difficult to deal with heavy backlash to a casting decision. Zendaya is used to the Disney spotlight, but she only 17 years old. This process must be rough.

Lifetime has stated that the biopic will detail Aaliyah’s relationship with R Kelly, which … could be potentially awkward. Aaliyah’s family is all upset that this will be a Lifetime release. They vow to “torpedo” the use of Aaliyah’s music in the movie. Online commenters have spoken up about Zendaya’s light skin. She’s half black, and some people question whether she’s dark enough to play Aaliyah. And this conversation just grew very uncomfortable, right?

TMZ caught up with Zendaya at LAX and asked her about the skin color controversy. Her father, Kazeme Ajamu (who is African American), was there too:

All the haters saying Zendaya isn’t black enough to play Aaliyah can chill out — her dad says she’ll be baking in the sun to prepare for the role.

Zendaya and her father were at LAX talking about her role in the upcoming Lifetime movie — and even addressed the criticism that she’s too light skinned to portray the late singer.

“A lot of people say I’m not black enough. Half black is just enough. It doesn’t matter what color you are, it’s about how you portray the character. For those that don’t know, Angela Bassett and Tina Turner, they look nothing alike but she was that character so I think that’s what it’s all about.”

Her dad/manager says:

“They’re shooting this in the summer. She’ll get dark enough.”

Pretty clear he’s making a joke, but … funny?

[From TMZ]

I’m not going to jump all over Zendaya for what she said. Zendaya and her dad were both very polite to the paps. TMZ was trying to start something by bringing the topic up. They love to catch celebrities unaware to get their “candid” reactions, but Z and her dad were well versed and handled the paps well. Zendaya is already being attacked on Twitter, and it isn’t pretty.

Here are some pics of Aaliyah from 2001:

Photos courtesy of Fame/Flynet, Getty & WENN

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

62 Responses to “Zendaya responds to criticism that she’s ‘not black enough’ to play Aaliyah”

Comments are Closed

We close comments on older posts to fight comment spam.

  1. hannah says:

    Aaliyah looks quite a bit like Kelly Rowland in that second pictures, right?

  2. Loopy says:

    I don’t mind whether the actor/actress looks too much like the person their portraying that will rarely happen. As long as they embody their mannerisms,personality and spirit that’s the main point.Plus studio make does wonders Meryl Streep was pretty much Ms Thatcher ,Angella Bassett did a great job as Tina Turner and they look nothing alike. So did Jamie Fox as Ray,Will Smith as Ali, Denzel Washington as Malcom X etc so give the girl a break, the only thing if i was her that i would feel uncomfortable about is the family, how can you go ahead and play someone without the blessings of those closest to her.

    • We Are All Made of Stars says:

      I agree with your point completely, but this is a LIFETIME move we’re talking here! Did you see the fashion show in the Donatella Versace pic? Couldn’t they have at least gone to Macy’s instead of Kmart to buy the clothes? *shudders*

      • Loopy says:

        What Donatella Versace pic?

      • kri says:

        Well, this movie is going to get made, and I’m sure as hell not going to after a 17-yr. old who may not be “black enough” to play Aaliyah. WTF kind of crap is that? I hate that not*insert adjective here* enough to do this role, no matter who it is. I mean, I know it’s only a Lifetime movie, but maybe the girl can do a good job. I hope she does, tbh.

    • kimber says:


      that R Kelly thing has to be creepy for them too. 🙁

  3. reddy says:

    Why is SHE being attacked? Somebody else thought she’d be good for the role, how about focusing the anger at them? But I really don’t know her at all, and I was never really a fan of Aaliyah, so I don’t have any personal connection to this story. Just thought that her answer really wasn’t that Bad.

  4. Happyhat says:

    “They’re shooting this in the summer. She’ll get dark enough.”

    Errrrrr………….. That’s not really the point, is it?!!!!!!!!!!! They’re not talking about skin colour, they’re talking about race and the whole argument some people have that bi-racial is neither one thing nor the other (too black to be white, too white to be black…) It’s a horrible horrible stupid argument. Does he not get that?! Bless him if he doesn’t.

    • Faye says:

      I have a feeling he gets that -I saw him interviewed on “Dancing with the Stars” when Zendaya was on and he seemed very intelligent. I suspect this is dry humor and his way of sidestepping the whole debate, to which I say: well played.

      • Happyhat says:

        Ah! Thank you! I hope it is… that kind of sarcasm is difficult to read sometimes. If it the case – well played indeed!!

      • Naye in VA says:

        Yea his daughter summed it up perfectly, there was nothing else he could say without being heavy handed. It’s really stupid the whole thing actually. Black people talking about Black people not being Black enough dont know what being Black is. I used to get in fights when I was in middle school over people saying that to me. Both of my parents are Black but I grew up in what was considered a wealthy suburb and went to private school until 5th grade. All of my non-school friends were white until I started middle school and bused to the most hood school in the county lol. It was adjustment after adjustment. It’s funny now to see some of those same girls that talked shit about me having kids by white dudes or loving brad Pitt, stuff I would have been clowned for. Funny enough, almost all of my friends now are “hood” rachet, whateva. But the good thing about them is that they know I’m not. They know Im going to use words they dont understand, and that I like to fist-pump at international clubs, and read classic novels, and go to BackStreet Boys concerts, they understand my claim to suburbia and they love me anyway. Those are people that understand that being “black” isnt just a depiction in a music video. It’s the experience. My skin will always predetermine something in my life, and that is a fact I share with millions of African americans in this nation whether they choose to acknolwedge it or not. To say a girl isnt “black” enough means that you dont truly understand the Black experience.

      • Faye says:

        @Naye – Thanks for your post – I thought it offered a really interesting perspective. I know as a white person I can’t really enter the debate, but I can’t help feeling sorry for Zendaya being attacked on the Internet and elsewhere. I only know her from DWTS, but she seemed like a very talented, bright, hardworking girl. Hopefully her parents (who also seemed like great people) will help keep her grounded and able to tune out the “noise.”

      • Sooloo says:

        @Naye – Oh man, I was the same. Getting called “Oreo” or being questioned and teased in front of big groups of other kids because they (the ones who thought only they were “black enough”) assumed I wouldn’t know who such-and-such rapper/singer/actor was, like I wasn’t immersed enough in the culture and therefore wasn’t legit. Or I spoke too properly. Or I actually cared about doing well in school. Such a shame that wanting to be successful and aspirational in life is seen as anathema to black culture, to the extent that anyone who doesn’t fit all the negative stereotypes commonly associated with it are lambasted and mercilessly criticized.

        I do understand some of the negativity surrounding this particular story, just in the sense of there always being a backlash against a lighter-skinned woman playing a woman who was/is in real life darker-skinned, not so much because the actress is seen as unfit but more so because of the question “why couldn’t they have just found a darker-skinned actress?” which, of course, goes along with the notion that only lighter-skinned folks (women, at least) are worthy of the roles and spotlight in Hollywood for fitting those ideals of beauty.

        I’ve never understood the “not black enough” BS because oftentimes those lobbying that accusation at someone else are doing so out of narrow beliefs of what blackness constitutes and anyone not fitting within those lines is derided. This goes hand-in-hand with criticisms I often see against folks like Miley or Justin Bieber, who get called out for “acting black” or appropriating black culture – this accusation is only brought up when they embody the most negative (or outrageous – twerking, pants sagging, “hip-hop speak”) stereotypes about black people and that is maddening. No one is ever accused of “acting black” if they’re a straight-A student, have a high-paying job, have a Master’s degree, etc., just like no one would accuse Miley/Justin of “acting black” if they were polite, well-mannered, well-dressed. But internal to the black community (speaking about my own experience here), it’s the hallmarks of success, achievement, or self-pride that some blacks have used to conclude in their own limited minds that someone is NOT acting black. But I agree as a whole that it’s an experience, not just a skin color.

      • Dame Snarkweek says:

        Naye in VA
        I think I love you!

      • Naye in VA says:

        @Dame Sharkweek

        I wouldnt be surprised, I’m pretty awesome lol

        @ Sooloo

        Fortunately, I have found as i get older, at least where i live, a growing appreciation for Blacks in our community who are striving to do better. As ratchet as they may be, all of my close girlfriends are currently pursuing post-secondary education, and are seeking to bring themselves out of how they currently live. I have Black friends that appreciate my intellect for more than just my ability to cheat on, and even if some can’t follow what I’m saying I pretty much never encounter anyone that is outright rude. I’m the one who plans the out of county vacations, who knows the best places to eat, etc. etc. What was seen as a deficiency when I was young is now an assett. My experience pretty much mirrored yours. What I want, and what needs to happen in the most underprivileged communities now is to address with the YOUTH that “fitting in” isn’t worth your future. For privileged white kids, fitting in may be drinking, or having sex, maybe some shoplifiting, vandalism, you know, cute stuff that won’t necessarily be follow you to adulthood. Fitting in in the Black community, (and this is something I find sad in communities that are NOT steeped in poverty but offer equal educational opportunity) is not just dressing a certain way, but not going to school, smoking weed(I dont advise for teens trying to have a focus) being disrespectful to authority, just hanging around not doing shit. Its not until adulthood some of us realize the frivolity of this activity, but some never turn around. Again lol the hood loves me, so I do a lot of talking to young men I know about why they settled for a bum couch to couch 40oz weed and newports minimum wage if theyre working life. Some understand, some can figure theyre way out of it, some never will. If I ever get enough money to set up a non profit for at-risk youth I will. At least in the inner city there are programs, but out here in the suburbs the wealthy care about keeping the wealthy happy (re-zoning, heavy police presence), and there are very few programs that cater to those that are disadvantaged, or just need something to do to keep them out of trouble.

  5. msmercury says:

    Nothing against Z. She is very pretty and I’m hoping she does a good job but I do think Hollywood has a problem with casting black women (and Asians too). It seems that when ever there is a role for a black person they always go way lighter then real life person was (like they never go darker). So I kind of understand the controversy. But that is not the actress’ fault at all. I wish people would stop attacking her.

    Also this film will probably be a lifetime mess but I can’t wait for it.

    • FingerBinger says:

      That’s not true about Hollywood always going lighter. Denzel Washington,who is brown skinned played Malcolm X, who was very light. Idris Elba is dark skinned and he played Nelson Mandela. Diana Ross played Billie Holiday,who was lighter skinned.

      • Luca26 says:

        It’s telling that you to reach back over thirty years to find an instance when a slightly darker woman who happened to be the most famous black woman at the time played a lighter skinned woman. The men are aren’t facing the same issues as the women to the same extent. God bless this girl I hope she does well but the industry should get called out for their B.S.

  6. Jojoann says:

    I hate that she brought up Angela Bassett. Angela was a great example of the studio NOT lightening the skin of the subject of a biopic. Lets face it, studios do this because they actually believe a lighter skinned actress will be more “relatable” and easy to market broadly. Speaking of which whatever happened to the Nina Simone biopic starring ………….Zoe Saldana?

    Its not her fault and we cant hate her for being on her grind. But its still very shitty and I certainly wont stop calling it out when I see it.

    • Happyhat says:

      Can I just say that ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ is one of my fav. biopics of all time. Better than ‘Walk the line’. That bit when she walks into the hotel after leaving Ike, and says “My name is Tina Turner, I have no money with me, please give me a room and I’ll pay you back.” and then he does, cos she’s Tina Turner, breaks my heart every single time!

  7. Lady says:

    Who said she wasnt black enough? White paps trying to instigate?

    • QQ says:

      Nah, trust me My Twitter feed and Tumblr which are both mostly black and definitely people who have followed Aaliyah were BEYOND displeased… they have been comparing this to the Flex Alexander as MJ horrible casting disaster, there is a feeling that they just got the new happening girl for something she is completely not suited to do…and the sentiments of whitewashing both aaliyah and her story (cause: are they gonna address that awful ass R.Kelly?)

      Plus I believe that the fans favorites for this were either Keisha Chante or Teyana Taylor as they sorta favor Aaliyah more

    • mayamae says:

      Well, a couple of people here said it, without saying it – if you know what I mean.

  8. in_theory says:

    Bedhead, I just want to remark that there are no pictures of Aaliyah from 2002 because she died in August 2001.

  9. Alexis says:

    I just don’t think she is grown up enough to play Aaliyah. Although very young, Aaliyah was sultry and edgy, this Disney chick is not. As for skin tone, it’s not like Aaliyah was Lupita’s complexion, she was light skinned! Anyway, the controversy around this is ridiculous. I doubt this will be an award-winning masterpiece, isn’t this just going straight to cable?!

    • Side-Eye says:

      That’s what I’ve been saying-aaliyah wasn’t some chocolate princess.

    • ToodySezHey says:


      I agree completely. Aaliyah was like a Ferrari in spirit, and this girl comes off like a VW Bug.

      Remember how Aaliyah described hersel?
      Street but sweet. Well..Zendaya has the sweet part down I think but….

  10. eowyn says:

    This reminds me of the casting of Zoe S as Nina Simone. Why are they whitewashing black women?
    Aaliyah was black not mixed but black. They are already few roles for black women but now they can’t even have those ones.
    I mean do people even know the numbers of black or mixed character in movies based on books/real life stories who ended up whitewashed to the point of being mixed for the black ones and white for the mixed ones.
    That is bullshit.

  11. AlmondJoy says:

    Honestly, its really not about whether she’s “black enough.” The issue is Colorism. And the fact that Hollywood producers would rather cast a lighter skinned or biracial woman to play a black woman. The reasons for that.. I would rather not get in to. She seems like a sweet kid though, is so excited to portray Aaliyah. I’m wishing her the best! Hoping she slays the part.

  12. lisa says:

    considering lifetime cast the cracken as elizabeth taylor, this casting is really not that terrible

    they picked someone who could do her own singing and dancing and who already has somewhat of a following. and is not a hot mess. so i say this is a step up in the lifetime biopic department.

    • Happyhat says:

      Ha! Exactly. “Will you turn up on time?” “Yes.” “Hired.”

      • lisa says:

        not having dina lohan trailing behind her was another selling point

      • TheOneandOnlyOnly says:

        Best comment; didn’t aaliyah appear in queen of the damned; If she had lived, would little ol’ beyonce be as big as she is?

  13. Kimmy says:

    God, Aaliyah was hot. Remember her music videos? I’m more concerned with this girl not having that same “it factor” that Aaliyah did.

    And Ewww R. Kelly.

  14. Macey says:

    I cant believe so many ppl are making such a stink over a lifetime movie. I admit I do not recall having ever heard of Aaliyah until this movie came about. maybe Im the only one but her name rings no bells to me at all and aside from what I read on here, I dont know anyone else that has heard of her or her music. I was certainly around during that time but maybe she just wasnt big in my area, dont know but its just a Lifetime move. They’re always crap, look who they picked to portay Liz Taylor for cripes sake. I would think if she was all that that maybe her family would want to honor her in some way and maybe introduce her music to those of us who have never heard of her.

    • AlmondJoy says:

      Are you an R&B fan? She really meant alot to the R&B and Hip Hop community. Also, her music is stuck played today, so if you listen to the right stations, you’ll hear it often. She was our Selena.

    • ToodySezHey says:

      The city of Detroit shut down for Aaliyah ‘ s funeral. Her coffin was carried by a white horse drawn carriage with hundreds of people lining the street to watch her funeral procession.

      So yeah..more than ” a few” people knew who Aaliyah was. It was the complete talk of the MTO awards that year since she died like days before. Her brother had to tearfully go onstage and accept an award in her name.

      In the RnB and black community, Aaliyah death and funeral was their equivalent to losing Princess Diana.

      Rest in piece, BabyGirl.

    • Mel M says:

      Come on? Rock the boat?! More than a woman?! I used to rock that all of the time in college in my car, memories.

    • Jessica says:

      Never heard of her either.

  15. skipper says:

    Is that Bijou Phillips in the background of the picture of Aaliyah?

    • Hiddlesgirl85 says:

      @skipper: More than likely. She was friends (or friendly) with Nicole Ritchie and her crew, which includes Bijou, Paris, Rashida (this one through Kidida Jones as they were VERY close friends), etc.

  16. nubiahbella says:

    Funny how the women here saying she’s black enough lol, would b signing a different tune if she was playing a White celebrity oh I guess she wouldn’t be White enough.

    • Shamus says:

      Actually, that’s not true. Although her features aren’t really European (perhaps Sicilian, if any group in Europe,) she could very easily play a white Hispanic. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t care if she played a white European if she was good at what she did. That’s what should count, right?

    • NN says:

      This girl is half white you guys, so by your logic shouldn’t she be able to play someone white? Like say…Amy Whinehouse? Or Dusty Springfield?
      Oh I bet you there would be backlash in that case! And I’d say the studio can lighten her skin post production or fiddle with the lighting and makeup. Or just accept it because “it’s about the performance and talent and NOT about skin color, skin color shouldn’t matter and blah blah…”

      • Pepsi Presents...Coke says:

        Yes. I had many thoughts about this exact thing, the history of it and how we’re still living with it, and how conversation gets shut down. But those thoughts are with the angels now. I’d love to see casting scenario play out. This girl is more Grace Kelly than Grace Jones, but oh, how the winds would howl.

    • Pepsi Presents...Coke says:

      I hear you. Twelve hours later and no one touched your question.

      People flipped out over the relatively tame in comparison of choosing Nicole Kidman as GK–too tall, too thin, too old, too much botox, too past her prime to do GK service, they should’ve got January Jones, and so on. I saw a whole debate about the shade of blonde of Grace Kelly’s hair for crying out loud. But this is hyperbolic? I think people are a lot more wrapped up in representations of themselves, general as they may be, than they let on, not just black women. It just gets more political once the hue starts to darken.

      Look at the casting choices for black female characters in recent or upcoming films:

      Whatever that Nina Simone mess will be
      Hunger Games (Rie)
      Precious (the teacher went from having dreadlocks and very dark skin which helped the titular character learn to love her own skin to turning into Paula Patton)
      Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. They got a woman who is half-white with Zendaya’s tone to play Harriet Tubman. Come ON.

      And so on. All projects with expressly dark-skinned characters who have to be ‘whitened-up’ to be good enough and likeable. Now even the relatively light Alliyah has to be made even lighter still. When they’re bad or ugly or a slave they get to stay dark, but that’s veering off topic. This practice is so ingrained in Hollywood life that half the time people don’t even notice it. Are people going to give an inch and concede that at least some of the time black women get screwed by this practice, or that it even happens? Or is this going to be all about mean women picking on a girl (who is clearly in career Purgatory… right) because they’re always mad about something? Are people going to get real and look the effects of colourism in the (Bluest) eye, or yell ‘bully’ and claim people are baying for her blood? Or pretend that we can’t hear these complaints so they don’t exist? I know what usually happens, but I remain optimistic.

      I truly wish this girl well, I don’t think people have a problem with her personally, they’re just rolling this eyes that this is happening again.

      Don’t make films about R. Kelly, for the love of Cthulhu.

  17. mrs says:

    Ok, but President Obama is also half white but everyone would have you thinking he’s 100% black and that’s what he wants. History was made with him being the first black president right? It’s all about what people choose to focus on. This girl is half black and she has the skin tone that Aaliyah did so that’s probably why Lifetime cast her.

  18. Emily C. says:

    “It doesn’t matter what color you are.”

    Okay then. When is Lupita Nyong’o slated to play Marilyn Monroe?

    • Pepsi Presents...Coke says:

      It doesn’t matter what colour you are?

    • Shamus says:

      And when is Little Orphan Annie, she of the fair skin and red hair, slated to be played by someone black. Oh, wait…!

      • NN says:

        Uh yes and people gave her shit for it. Your point? Oh and it’s not a real life character so apples and oranges. Oh oh and they weren’t pretending she’s white either.
        Fail. Try again.

  19. velvetelvis@yahoo.com says:

    Zendaya is so wholesome…can’t see her playing Aaliyah, who was rather provocative. No one really watches these Lifetime movies anyway so who really cares.

  20. Kath says:

    Kazeme Ajamu is an awesome name. That is all.

  21. RobN says:

    I can’t see how the argument over who is “black enough” has really ever been anything other than a disservice to anybody. People shouldn’t be put in a position of having to justify their color to anybody. It’s acting, she seems like a talented young actress. It ought to be enough.

  22. jwoolman says:

    Her dad isn’t kidding about her getting dark enough in the summer. Don’t know why people think melanin production in response to sun (aka tanning) only happens in Europeans. Your body chemistry doesn’t look up your racial category (an artificial sociological construct anyway) before the reaction occurs. She certainly does change skin color over the course of a year, I’ve seen pictures of her. You see the same for anybody of various skin tones, but it’s especially obvious for those who are significantly lighter in winter. One neighbor who was already very dark thought he was immune to solar radiation until he visited the Caribbean and his nose got sunburned…

    And also I’m sure that kids who watched her on Disney would assume she’s black enough. On the show, both her parents were quite dark. She wasn’t playing a kid with European or Hispanic roots, she was definitely playing an African-American kid.

    My assumption is that the Lifetimeovie focuses especially on the younger days so they wanted someone very young who still had good acting credentials. This kid has done more than Disney. With the right director, she’s likely to do well.

  23. Jessica says:

    I have no idea who Aaliyah is, so I Googled her and her skin is pretty light. She’s not Lupita N dark, you know what I mean. I don’t see how Zendaya is not “black enough” to play Aaliyah; to me they have a very similar skin tone.

    By the way, the R. Kelly stuff…. EW!!!! I wonder if they will cover that in the Lifetime biopic. R. Kelly is so nasty.

  24. Fab says:

    No no just NO!

  25. Jenny12 says:

    Who is anyone to judge a person’s skin? We say Obama is the first black president, and he isn’t. He’s the first biracial president. People always look for something to get angry about. My two nieces are biracial, and one is dark skinned with very curly black hair and dark eyes- her sister is quite fair, with green eyes and a blond afro. Is one of them black enough and the other not?

    • Jenny12 says:

      And BTW- the girl is 17. She’s a child, a minor. People should not be jumping all over her. And who is TMZ to tell a black man what is funny about skin jokes, when they were jumping on his child about what she looked like racially speaking?