Aaliyah Movie Debacle is Another Example of Hollywood’s Race Problem.

Aaliyah Movie

In case you missed it, “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B” premiered this past weekend on Lifetime. The film, which was almost universally skewed, due to awkward acting, confusing music, and abysmal casting, has been mired in controversy from the start. First there were the accusations of colorism in response to the initial casting of Zendaya as Aaliyah, which even spurred a petition. Then, it was announced that her family did not approve of the movie. Zendaya eventually pulled out of the film, citing poor production quality and the fact that she didn’t wish to offend Aaliyah’s family.

It’s worth mentioning that in Lifetime’s current slew of questionable biopics, the only somewhat known actors to be associated with these productions have been black, namely Zendaya, Yaya DaCosta Alafia, and Angela Bassett.

According to an official statement released by the Haughton family,

The family of the late singer and actress has taken to the media to express its disdain for the film project. According to Jomo Hankerson, cousin and president of her label, Blackground Records, no one from the cable network reached out to the family regarding the biopic.

As they reserve the rights to the music and likeness of the singer, relatives see it fit that those closest to Aaliyah contribute to the biopic to ensure that her story is told well and accurately. Furthermore, the family feels that Aaliyah’s story is worthy of a major motion picture release.

Aaliyah was more than a singer, she was -and is still – an American music icon whose legacy continues to live on and influence today’s music culture, just as Ray Charles, Notorious B.I.G., Selena and Johnny Cash.

Considering the magnitude of her fans’ affection alone, she deserves to have a tribute much more grand than a television network debut that won’t even consider the perspectives of those who were closest to Aaliyah.

Disregarding the families and dishonoring the legacies of celebrated figures who have passed on, big networks want to exploit their stories for a buck. We’re here to make it clear that it’s not okay!

Lifetime Television is trying to dictate the status of our heroes, our heroines and – in this case – our beloved Aaliyah. We implore everyone to call Lifetime Television, send emails and bombard social media so they know we demand respect for our cultural icons.

We will not sit idly by while they misrepresent and reap profits from our luminaries. There is more at stake than the public could imagine.”

Some criticized the press release, stating that Aaliyah’s short life and budding mainstream crossover career weren’t worthy of a major motion picture release. But, in the past, there have been several biopics based on the lives of young musicians, or musicians who did not completely crossover into the mainstream before their death. The most notable example is Selena, the film based on the life of Tejano music star Selena. The picture, which starred pop songstress Jennifer Lopez, was hit with some casting controversies of it’s own. Many fans of Selena disapproved of a Puerto-Rican actress playing the Mexican singer, citing the casting choice as another example of Hollywood’s tendency to treat Latino ethnic groups as interchangeable. The film, went on to gross 60 million dollars worldwide.

There’s a never-ending hamster wheel of sorts that Hollywood and entertainment media continue to run when talking about black films. We are commonly told that black films don’t sell and won’t garner interest internationally. When black films surpass expectations, the achievement is noted as a fluke, no matter how many times it happens. Recent examples are films such as The Best Man Holiday, which starred an all-black cast and No Good Deed, which starred Taraji P. Henson and Idris Elba. Both films made headlines by topping the box office in their opening weekend. Entertainment media also expressed disbelief at the fact that “Dear White People,” an indie picture, has been able to garner international interest.
As Tambay A. Obenson of Shadow and Act points out, where there’s a will, there’s a way,

What I’ve learned is that if a distribution company really wants to push a film overseas, they can and will do it. Damn whatever the popular belief is about that kind of film. They’ll find a way if they believe in that film, and have the resources.

During her short film career, Aaliyah also saw box office hits. Romeo Must Die was the number two movie in it’s opening weekend, while Queen of the Damned premiered at number one. In terms of international interest in her music, after her death, Aaliyah topped the UK singles chart with “More Than a Woman,” and online fan communities dedicated to her memory and music exist in a variety of languages. When news of her upcoming biopic hit, the internet exploded with reports and thinkpieces discussing the controversies surrounding the film and speculating on the quality of the upcoming picture. Clearly there is ample of interest in the life of Aaliyah.

To date, there have been 2 unauthorized documentaries, 1 unauthorized film, and 5 unauthorized biographies — one of which served as the basis for the unauthorized film — all based on the life of Aaliyah. All of these projects were low budget endeavors. Aaliyah’s family also did not approve of a posthumous album to produced by Drake. After a few tracks leaked from the hotly debated project last year, but the album was quickly shelved.

Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, which trended on Twitter over the weekend, spurred quite a backlash, moving it’s creators to defend the project. During her morning talk show yesterday, producer Wendy Williams defended the project, stating that it attracted over 3.2 millions, making it the second most watched cable movie of 2014. She basically pleaded the Tyler Perry, “you still watched it, didn’t you?” defense. I admit to being one of the 3.2 million. Whether or not we all watched out of irony, curiosity or boredom, we still watched. The film also serves as another example of Lifetime’s recent efforts to mimic stations like VH1 and Oprah’s “O” network, by capturing a black audience with more programming featuring black actors and more reality shows with black participants. Apparently black viewership can carry entire networks, but isn’t deserving of a major motion picture.

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An approved Aaliyah would likely draw a much bigger audience than the Lifetime movie, as it would include her actual songs, a major selling point with biopics based on the life ofmusicians. Considering the ongoing interest in the life and music of Aaliyah Haughton, and the recent disaster of a film, will Hollywood finally give fans the biopic they’ve been asking for? Or will we simply get another Tyler Perry movie, slave movie, or servant movie? If at first you don’t succeed — sorry, I had to.