Will Smith has reportedly signed on to portray Richard Williams, 77-the father of Venus and Serena Williams-in an upcoming biopic titled King Richard. But despite Smith's incredible range as an actor, the recent casting news has been met online with an unusual combination of praise, derision, and plain outrage from fans.
The controversy doesn't have anything to do with the 50-year-old star not having a background in tennis, his athletic ability, or lack thereof. Instead, many are questioning whether Smith's skin tone, as an African-American man, is dark enough to play the father to Serena, 37, and Venus Williams, 38.
On Monday, Deadline announced that Smith was in talks to take on the Williams family's patriarchal role. Williams is a Tennis Association Hall of Fame inductee who, in spite of his unfamiliarity with tennis and shortcomings growing up poor in Shreveport, Louisiana, helped mold his two daughters into the Grand Slam champions they are today. He's also the accomplished author of the 2017 memoir, Black and White: The Way I See It, which could serve as the source material for the King Richard biographical film.
Neither Smith nor the Williams family have yet to confirm the casting, but fans have been vocal that the part should go to an actor with a darker complexion closer to Williams', such as Idris Elba or Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali.
Colorism matters..love will Smith but there are other black actors for this role https://t.co/qrV1QuBiJH- Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) March 5, 2019
Will Smith is about to be the Scarlett Johansson of black movies 😭😩 https://t.co/O1F0vLhO6p- Tanyaradzwa 💕 (@MsSmileSoBright) March 5, 2019
Smith's ties to this potential starring role have stirred up the ongoing conversation about colorism in Hollywood.
Not to be confused with racism, colorism refers to discrimination based on an individual's skin tone.
Or, as TIME reported about an inscription that beloved author Alice Walker once wrote in her 1983 novel, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, colorism is "prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color."
But colorism isn't just an omnipresent threat that exists solely in corporate America, the Black community, or Hollywood. The roots of racial discrimination and colorism date back to slavery, when light-skinned slaves were often reduced to domestic chores inside their slaveowner's home, as opposed to those of a darker complexion who were forced to work outside in the fields.
The complicated politics of skin tone and its adjacency to success, beauty standards, and cultural appeal are a constant and painful reminder for those burdened-and those who subconsciously reap the benefits. So, naturally, you can imagine why the light-skinned Smith being chosen to play the dark-skinned Williams is drumming up a lot of emotions for those who believe his casting closes the door on opportunities for darker actors of color.
The conversation around Smith's reported casting mirrors the controversy that shrouded actress Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Nina Simone in the 2016 movie, Nina. Saldana-who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent-was criticized by fans and industry peers because of the significant difference in skin tone and facial features between her and the legendary singer and activist. Further adding insult to injury, Saldana wore darker makeup and a prosthetic nose in the film to make herself appear more like Simone.
For Smith, King Richard is just the latest movie role he's come under fire for, with the other being the upcoming 2019 Disney live-action remake of Aladdin, where Smith will play the cerulean-skinned, wish-granting Genie. When the new trailer for Aladdin was released during the Grammys in February, Smith was ridiculed for his blue complexion, which viewers noted was "scary."
They premiered this image at night??? We are supposed to sleep after this??? I have never known peace pic.twitter.com/zUzl8X1Axw- Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) February 11, 2019
Regardless of the often tone-deaf decisions made by Hollywood executives, not everyone is upset about the news of Smith portraying the Williams sisters' father. After all, Smith has starred in other sports-related films before, such as Ali, Concussion, and The Legend of Bagger Vance.
So let me understand that a black man can only play a black man now if he is the right shade of black. So that case Denzel Washington should never have played Malcom x.We as black people only brings ourselves down,- seketee (@shine254) March 5, 2019
This is really pathetic and sad. He is an awesome actor and will play hell out of it. Doesn’t matter his skin color. It’s the talent!!- Fearless (@sasyncurvacious) March 5, 2019
Colorism and terrifying blue shades aside, one character we can definitively say Smith is perfect for is Mike Lowrey. He'll revive the role of the suave narcotics detective in the upcoming sequel, Bad Boys For Life, in 2020. And Variety reports that Smith, through his entertainment company Overbrook Entertainment, will also serve as producer for King Richard.
For more stories like this plus all things Oprah, sign up for our newsletter!