Casting Colorism, Controversial Only When Light Plays Dark?


So… remember all Black Hell that broke loose over a “lightskinned” Afro-Latina actress, Zoe Saldana, being tapped to play the legendary Nina Simone? The crux of the ‘blacklash’ was “she looks nothing like Nina!”

Translation: Zoe’s “lightskin and ‘good’ hair” were a deal-breaker for Black folks, and ‘we’ were not having it. (Leaked production pics of Zoe in what was decried as ‘blackface’ makeup to look like Nina… didn’t help her case.)


The controversy was so swift and visceral, Zoe Saldana was compelled to defend not only her choice to accept the role of Nina Simone, but also to defend her ethnic ‘authenticity’ as a Black-Latina woman. Which I found sad and unfortunate the attacks got so personal that a Black actress was pressured to prove she’s aesthetically and genetically “Black enough.”

Now… fast-forward past many other controversial castings that caused cries of colorism when a ‘lightskinned’ actor played a ‘darkskinned’ person–as well as little to no controversy when the opposite casting occurred–to the recent announcement that Chadwick Boseman has been cast to play Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.


Suffice to say, two Black people could not be more dissimilar in appearance than Chadwick Boseman and Thurgood Marshall. Whereas, Thurgood Marshall could possibly “pass” [for White] in many circles back in his day, Chadwick Boseman was the spitting image of James Brown as the lead in his biopic.


Still, there as been no major ‘blacklash’ over Chadwick snagging the Thurgood Marshall role. There have been some reader grumblings in comment sections about the “looks” not matching, but that smattering of criticism from Blacks hasn’t been called an “erasure of blackness,” as is the case when a lighter complexioned Black actor portrays a darker complexioned person. Why?


When Denzel Washington played Malcolm X, there was no widespread criticism calling for Spike Lee to cast Laurence Fishburne instead. Even though they were both fine actors in their own right, Laurence Fishburne bore a closer resemblance to the 6’4”, fair-complexioned, green-eyed, red-haired, Malcolm X. Denzel’s Oscar nominated performance silenced any critics who may have considered such an argument and the Oscar nominated film itself is considered an “absolutely necessary” classic.

Why the apparent double-standard when it comes to the complexions of Black actors portraying Blacks persons or characters of a different complexion?

I mean… we even went off about a lightskinned actress portraying Harriet Tubman as a slayer of the undead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.


I have my personal points of view based on studying and experiencing colorism. (It’s essentially racism’s bastard offspring, indoctrinated into the colonized minds of oppressed people living in a white supremacist power structure.)

But I’d like to initiate the conversation, rather than give a dissertation on the issue. Your thoughts are welcome.

Do you believe Black people feel different types of ways about light playing dark than dark playing light between actors and roles? If so, what are your thoughts on that double-standard? (This isn’t a rhetorical question… your insights are genuinely welcome.) #dontBSyourself


12 thoughts on “Casting Colorism, Controversial Only When Light Plays Dark?

  1. Okay. It is well known that darker black men don’t have as much trouble getting major roles as dark black women. Name some roles where darker women played ‘lightskinned’ women. I think you missed the point of this controversy.
    The problem lies with the casting of ‘darkskinned women and how they are represented. Dark men are more accepted than dark women. Blacks do it in their movies too. CREED!!


    1. Actually, I can name very many roles where darkskinned actresses played a lighterskinned person. Angela Bassett played both Tina Turner, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King with literally zero controversy of accusation of colorism. I think you missed the point of the piece because your argument it too self-affirming.

      Yes, there is a problem with darker complexioned actresses getting hired. That’s not “the” problem, that’s part of the larger problem of Hollywood colorism. The above post is dealing with a separate part of the problem: public perception, not casting. Clearly, there is a pattern of darker playing lighter being more acceptable than lighter playing dark when it comes to complexions of Black actors portraying historical figures.


  2. Did you watch the trailer. Even if I could ignore the terrible makeup job, it still comes off like an offensive caricature. Zoe’s attempt at emulating Nina’s mannerisms is one of the most cringe worthy things I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of Robert Downey Jr’s character in Tropic Thunder playing a stereotypical black man from the Bronx, except these film makers are doing it with a straight face.


    1. This piece was published prior to the release of the trailer. So, it’s based on the controversy of the casting alone, not the actual film, makeup, or performance.

      That being said, it’s interesting Zoe is compared to a white actor playing black, even though she’s black. Her caricature-like portrayal could be compared to Eddie Murphy–as fellow black actor–in Coming To America or Nutty Professor, but instead Robert Downey Jr? It’s one thing to critique her performance and the film production, but calling Zoe’s blackness into question–be it overtly by inference–is unfair.


      1. I’m not questioning her blackness, I’m questioning her ability to convincingly portray a beloved musical icon. Just because she’s a black woman doesn’t mean she’s incapable of perpetuating offensive stereotypes. I don’t have anything against her personally, but I think they could have used this as an opportunity to showcase some lesser known talent. From what I understand, they picked Zoe more for her name recognition than her acting ability. There’s plenty of talented black women who more favorably resemble Nina Simone but never even get considered for major roles and that’s the real issue at play here.


      2. It may not be your intention to question her blackness, but comparing her to a white actor in blackface does exactly that, especially when there are examples of other black actors who done the same thing as her.


  3. What I meant was that Kirk Lazarus, the character played by Robert Downey Jr, was a method actor so committed to getting into character that he didn’t realize he was playing an outrageous caricature. And even though Zoe is black, the makeup looks just as ridiculous. But it’s probably not as big of a deal as people are making it out to be. The movie will probably suck regardless of how well she performs because the film makers seem mostly interested in showing her acting crazy and fabricating romances she never had with managers.


  4. Pseudo intellectualism at its best. Clearly this author does not understand what it means to have institutionalized colorism and a legacy of anti dark skin colorism. You have failed miserably at comparing light person who got dark roles with dark persons who got light roles. The west has a rich history of firstly using whites to play black roles, then mixed persons to play black roles. It is centuries old and continues today. Please show the rich history of dark people playing white roles or light skin roles. All you’re doing is drawing a few instances. However , you can’t compare instances to legacies. You’re just playing smart with foolishness . Alas you will impress those who can’t think critically and those who don’t read


    1. You really should channel some of that energy you’ve dedicated to insult and invest it into actually thinking critically. The purpose of the post IS to use specific instances to pose a specific question about colorism from both the light to dark and dark to light perspective. You’re literally criticizing the asking of a question. Do better.


  5. Chadwick Boseman may as well be playing a white man. This casting choice is the most absurd I’ve seen. I wonder if he will try to play Prince after this. Absurd.

    Also, I’m growing tired of Chadwick Boseman at this point. Feeling like he’s overstepping his welcome in these Biopics at this point. Wentworth Miller or even Frank Dillane (both white looking “black men”) would make more sense to play Marshall, or even Jesse Williams or Michael Ealy.

    I said this before and that is that I feel a major element to Marshall’s life that could’ve been depicted in the film was how he was able to gain the trust of black people when he himself looked so white . I personally thought Marshall was a white man when I first saw him. Him and that other guy who was in the Senate (forgot his name) who looked even whiter than he did.


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