Zendaya is no longer starring in a Lifetime movie that has the working title “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B.” On June 29, 2014, Lifetime’s publicity department made this announcement on its official Twitter account: “We are sad Zendaya will no longer portray Aaliyah. Production is currently on hold.” The Aaliyah biopic was supposed to begin filming in the summer of 2014 and premiere sometime in the autumn of 2014.
Aaliyah (whose last name was Haughton) died in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of 22. She was one of the more successful female R&B singers of the late ’90s/early 2000s. Her hits included “Back and Forth” and “Are You That Somebody?” She also had a promising acting career in movies, with starring roles in 2000’s “Romeo Must Die” and 2002’s “Queen of the Damned.”
At the 2014 BET Awards (held in Los Angeles on June 29), Zendaya (who is 17) commented to E! News about her exit from the Aaliyah biopic: “I just made a decision not to be a part of it, because I feel like it wasn’t all the way there as a project. I feel like it was being rushed. There were pieces that were missing. I feel like if I’m going to honor someone that I care about so much and respect so much, I can’t do anything less than 120 percent. I felt like it wasn’t the right thing for me.”
Before Zendaya dropped out of the movie, she did an interview with the Associated Press (AP) shortly after it was announced that she was starring in the movie. In her AP interview, Zendaya had this to say about taking on the role of Aaliyah: “I really want it to be perfect for her and show young people what she was able to do and what she accomplished. I can’t please everybody … what I can do is work really hard and you know, just continue to show her legacy. I feel like she grew up so young and she grew up in the industry … and she just had to deal with so much. I connect with that.”
For the Lifetime movie, Zendaya was going to re-record some of Aaliyah’s songs. The movie is based on the book “Aaliyah: More Than a Woman” by Christopher Farley. “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B” will be produced by Aaliyah Productions, Inc. Howard Braunstein and Debra Martin Chase will serve as executive producers. Bradley Walsh will direct from a script written by Michael Elliot.
There is no word yet on which actors have been cast as two of the loves in Aaliyah’s life: R. Kelly (who married Aaliyah when she was 15; the marriage was later annulled) and Damon Dash, who was her boyfriend at the time of her death.
Zendaya (whose last name is Coleman) rose to fame as a star of the Disney Channel series “Shake It Up!” She stars in two more Disney Channel projects: the series “K.C. Undercover” and the movie “Zapped. She starred as Raquel “Rocky” Blue on the hit D, as well as Shake It Up: Made In Japan, the record breaking song and dance–filled special that featured her single and video “Fashion is My Kryptonite.” Zendaya came in second place on Season 16 of “Dancing with the Stars.” Zendaya’s self-titled first album (which was released in 2013) includes the single “Replay.”
The news that Zendaya would be portraying Aaliyah in a Lifetime movie resulted in considerable controversy. Some people complained that Zendaya (who is biracial) is too light-skinned to portray Aaliyah. Other people said a bigger star or a more experienced entertainer should have been cast in the role. Members of Aaliyah’s family also objected because they said Lifetime did not consult them about the movie until after Zendaya was cast. The family also wants an Aaliyah biopic to be a major studio movie that is released in cinemas.
Jomo Hankerson, one of Aaliyah’s cousins, was the president of her label Blackground Records. He told the New York Daily News in an interview published on June 24, 2014: “We want a major studio release along the lines of ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It,’ the Tina Turner movie. This needs A-list actors, A-list talent that can breathe life into what we think is a phenomenal story.
“They have people they can talk to, people who can provide lots of color. But if you don’t talk to us, it’s not in the story. They didn’t reach out. I don’t know why they didn’t reach out.”
Lifetime’s Aaliyah biopic will include her controversial marriage to Kelly. Hankerson commented, “It’s not my favorite part. But we have no problem with basing the movie on Chris Farley’s book.”
As for casting Zendaya as Aaliyah, Hankerson said, “I don’t have a problem with her. It’s never been about the actress. The problem that we have is that Aaliyah was an icon and she deserves an iconic tribute, not a Lifetime movie.”
Although Aaliyah’s family wants her story to be told as a major studio movie released in theaters, realistically, this is a long shot. Aaliyah was a big star at the time of her death, but she wasn’t an “icon” on the level of someone like Elvis Presley, James Brown, Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, who have all had movies made about them. Even the first biopic about Whitney Houston, who was a much bigger star than Aaliyah was, will be a Lifetime movie, not a movie released in theaters.
If Aaliyah’s family wants her biopic to be a movie released in theaters, a more likely scenario is that it will be an independent movie. If this project is so important to the family, they can fund it themselves or raise the funding through crowdsourcing or other means. In this day and age, “prestige” and “A-list” aren’t always in the realm of major studio releases, since many independent films attract A-list talent and awards.
The other reality is that there are no A-list black actresses who can play Aaliyah, since the African-American actresses who are “A-list” are either too old and/or they look nothing like Aaliyah. As for A-list black female singers right now, there are none who look like Aaliyah, so filmmakers will have to cast someone who is not A-list for this role. And there is also the risk of casting a singer with no previous acting experience.
A likely scenario is that someone who has more experience acting than singing will be the person to replace Zendaya in Lifetime’s Aaliyah biopic. Although Aaliyah’s family prefers to have her story told in a major-studio movie, more people will see the Lifetime movie because of the fact that TV reaches more people.