“I’ve never changed my hair. I’ve never changed my color, I have always been proud of myself, and my fans are proud of me for remaining the way I’ve always been.” – Nina Simone
When I think of Nina Simone I think of her dark chocolate skin, her full lips and her tight ‘fro. Her looks were and still are every bit as relevant and powerful as the songs she sang. As a matter of fact, her undeniable African features defined and empowered her musical career. So it’s no small wonder that people are outraged at hearing the announcement that Zoe Saldana, an Afro-Latina with a café au lait complexion and fine facial features, has been cast as the High Priestess of Soul in an upcoming bio-pic. The fires were fanned this past weekend when an interview by the film’s writer and director, Cynthia Mort, surfaced in Entertainment Weekly where she talks about the biopic as something seemingly more inspired by Nina with composite characters than a film about Nina and the real-life characters from her life.
Zoe Saldana, best known for her roles in Avatar and Columbiana, may have the acting chops to play the lead in a feature movie, but when it comes to playing Nina Simone, I’m not so sure. It’s not simply that Saldana looks nothing like Simone, a woman who could spit out a truthful and caustic Mississippi Goddamn that reminded you in no uncertain terms that she had been rejected because of her skin color. Casting Saldana also attempts, if inadvertently, to erase the memory of Simone’s revolutionary ebon image from our minds and history’s musical canon. Saldana as Simone specifically challenges the message of Simone’s music and undermines the power of her well-documented resistance to conventional ideas of beauty and colorism. Nina’s success and appeal had as much to do with her talent as it did with her having big lips, wide hips and that Mama Africa bosom. Unlike Lena Horne, Diana Ross & The Supremes, and Tina Turner whose crossover success was as much a result of having talent as well as having sexy live performances and glamorous good looks, Nina used her experiences with racism, colorism and sexism to ignite her music with strength and resilience heard so defiantly in To Be Yong Gifted & Black for example.
Because Simone’s blackness extended as much to her musical prowess as to her physicality and image, it’s perplexing that the film’s production team, led by Jimmy Iovine, expects anyone, particularly in the black community, to (re)imagine Nina Simone as fair-skinned, thin-lipped and narrow-nosed? I guess if you look at Hollywood’s history of casting black female roles, especially in biopics, it’s not all that surprising.
With a few exceptions– Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, Halle Berry as Dorothy Dandridge and Beyonce as Etta James– Hollywood has a long history of giving black actresses the finger by casting white women in the lead of films based on the lives of black women — most famously Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Angelina Jolie was given the green light to portray Mariane Pearl, an Afro-Cuban Chinese, French writer in the 2007 adaptation of Pearl’s A Mighty Heart, which we kinda let slide because, well, it was Angie. But then she was cast again in a role based on a black woman character in the film Wanted, an adaptation of the same titled comic book series in which the main character is a black.
And the real kicker came in 2008 when Mena Suvari, a white actress, was cast in Stuck, the true life story of African-American Chante Mallard, for which Suvari had the nerve to sport cornrows.
If it only requires cornrows and a full-lipped box-office bombshell to secure these roles originally penned as Black women, then what’s to prevent any blonde, brunette, pale-skinned actress from playing Black? And if that’s the case, then surely Hollywood types also think…
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