Zoe Saldana, the Puerto Rican/Dominican star of Avatar, has been cast to play Nina Simone in the upcoming unauthorized biopic Nina. As photos of Saldana on set — wearing clumsy-looking nose putty and skin-darkening makeup — have emerged, fans of Simone have questioned the political implications of casting a light-skinned actress to play a darker-skinned civil rights hero, especially because Simone’s pride in her natural African features was such an integral part of her message and personality.
Last week Akiba Solomon gave us a personal take on the Nina Simone biopic’s casting troubles (accompanied by an adorable photo of kid Akiba meeting Ms. Simone). Then we opened it up to our readers to put in their own two cents. Here’s what you had to say.
The media and Hollywood had no love for Ms. Simone in life so why should we expect that they respect the portrayal of her in death… It’s really up to us to write and produce a movie worthy of Ms. Simone’s life and contribution to our people.
I concur. So sad to see such an opportunity pass by. Most people’s references of Nina will now be defined by this Hollywood production. The ‘Black is beautiful’ political concept embodied by Nina (among others) deserves a more just silver-screen representation.
Cultural commentator Jamilah Lemieux drops by:
Beautifully said, Akiba! It’s just frustrating that anyone could deny the problems with the casting, the director and the EP. I’ve heard everything from “we should be glad she’s getting a movie” and “why can’t we give Zoe a chance.” Yet these same folks have no response to the fact that Octavia Spencer or even a more ‘Hollywood-attractive’ dark-skinned actress wouldn’t get within inches of Lena Horne’s biopic. Nina Simone would be so offended by this film.
I agree with the article. It is a little sad that the debate within the comments seems to have become a conflict of the representation of authenticity of The Black voice, this is who can and cannot say what is/is not black enough rather than the authenticity of This Black voice, which should be the focus of the film. I appreciate Saldana’s ability, but if she cannot represent the context and thus the importance & power of Simone’s work than the point has already been lost.
Quite like Akiba feels pulled in two directions, I do as well. On the one hand, people of my own race love to tell me I’m too light and talk too White (I’m half P-Rican), so I feel sorry for Zoe and many others who take fire from both sides. On the other hand, I’m appalled, better said disgusted, that Hollywood loves to choose the most White-looking Black actors for such roles (I know Nina Simone is turning in her grave this very moment). I cherish my natural hair, my full lips and high cheekbones and I wish that a natural woman (like Nina Simone) that more closely resembles her natural, beautiful African features, would play the part.
As a side note, I know deep down inside that the White producers simply want their White customers (who will account for a large part of their profits) to be able to relate more with the character, but at the same time, Whites will never learn to relate if they can never get comfortable with true African beauty.
The issue arises when we look at Nina Simone’s legacy. Her appearance was political and she used that heavily in her artistry and activism. Mort & her team are over there putting Zoe Saldana in blackface & adding prosthetics to her nose because they acknowledge this. And hell, they are even failing at mimicking Nina’s appearance! So yes, in the case of this film, it is VERY relevant that the actress does not resemble the person she’s supposed to be portraying.
I guess the two parts of this Nina debate I haven’t liked has been that so much of the criticism has been focused on Zoe, and that so many people seem to have adopted Viola Davis as the person who should have, and would have done Nina’s role justice. It’s gotten to the point where people feel like Viola was wronged. My thing is, firstly - Viola’s role selection has been suspect - her last two films - The Help and Won’t Back Down are not really great examples of black characters in film. Before we nominate Viola for the Nina role, let’s ask ourselves how Nina would have felt about The Help — both the book and the film. Or what about Ms. Davis’ choice to play a mom who was OK with letting her son be sexually abused by a Catholic priest in ‘Doubt’. I enjoyed Doubt, thought it was a great film, but with Ms. Davis’ role being the only adult person of color on the film, I was a little disappointed. Folks are basing this championing of Viola based on how she looks — which I don’t think is really fair.
The other issue I had with how this whole debate has played out has been that people have made Zoe the villain in all this. I think, Zoe is one of the few black actresses who readily affirms her blackness and identifies it as a major part of who she is while also rejecting euro-centric standards of beauty.
“As a Latina, I think we should be very proud of our heritage. We tend to look for European roots and reject the indigenous and the African, and that is disgusting.”
For us to push her away… essentially saying she’s not black enough or her features are too eurocentric - seems a little backward to me.
Jamilah Lemieux again:
I agree about Davis’ “suspect” roles (glad to hear someone else say it!), but I also think that Zoe’s comments in a 2011 issue of EBONY about how she can’t complain about the lack of roles for Blacks in Hollywood when we have a Black POTUS are just as damning. The injustice was not in failing to cast Viola, but that someone who doesn’t seem fit to embody the spirit and the physicality of Nina Simone got the role. So much of the argument about the film became about these two women when it should have been about Nina.
Andrea Millet Odom Mullin:
I like how you said it is not the performer’s fault, it’s Hollywood’s fault. We should be careful not to direct animosity at these individuals who did not hire themselves, but are just taking what is being offered to them. Decent projects for women of color are few, this is not a zero-sum game, roles do not “belong” to anyone and other actors should not feel that Zoe “took” “their” role. It not a search for the best representation for for Nina, but the most marketable one, sad to say.
Yvette Dalton McCoy:
I truly disagree that it is not the performer’s fault. Sidney Portier said on Oprah that he turned down roles that would embarrass him or make his daughters/family shameful and that was during the 60s. He said there was one particular role ( I believe it was some amoral murderer) that he turned down because he said he had daughters and even though he could have used the money… HE DID NOT DO IT!! He went on to WIN AN OSCAR for another role!
Funny how Zoe has not been hired in the past because she is “too black” for the ideal image of a Dominicana… now she’s been judged because she’s not black enough… go figure!