August 29, 2012

Category: Real Talk

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone

“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…

Click HERE to continue reading my full story featured on The Huffington Post.

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5 Responses to “Zoe Saldana as Nina SimoneComment RSS feed

  • Noelani
    August 30th, 2012 2:53 am

    I have no words. I am not trying to bash another black woman for getting a part in no-black-woman’s land Hollywood, but really? Nina Simone. Wasn’t it bad enough when Mary J was supposed to play her? At least when it was Mary, you could “see” it, but this…makes no sense.

    Adn that reference to Mena Suvari,oh yes, that casting almost made me put Stuart Gordon (a horror film director I liked) in the outhouse. I mean, really and the cornrows were just the icing on that shit cake.

    But back to Zoe. I will be honest. She is not a complex actress. Maybe in a few years, she’ll be better but now she’s more of a romantic lead in fluff type of actress. Whenever she tries to go deeper, it comes off as forced. I won’t dissect her movie career because that’s not what your post is about. Still, it had to be said.

    The whole thing is a catch twenty-two, if people complain, then we’re complainers, if we say nothing, then we’re approving of this kind of b.s. casting. In the end, does it really matter what we say? People that finance these films will keep doing this and we can keep exercising our right not to buy into it.

  • florence tate
    August 30th, 2012 11:52 am

    the HOTNESS exquisitely defines the reasons why the casting of zoe soldana as nina simone is totally unacceptable. there’s nothing inherently wrong about casting roles without regard to skin color . however in the case of nina simone, fergawdssakes, whose very ‘physicality’ was inextricably intertwined with her artistry and politics , an exception to that principle is dictated. it would be a betrayal of nina’s very being to have her represented on screen around the world as other than a proudly dark-skinned, full featured, full-bodied, passionate african american black woman.
    thank you HOTNESS for your inspired attention to this matter.
    btw: i’m a huge fan of soldana’s work. xo

  • Liza JP
    August 31st, 2012 12:28 am

    Well said! In this case skin color/complexion DOES matter because Nina Simones Dark skin, Very kinky hair and broad wide thick African features informed her art and politics. And lets not pretend that skin color does not play a MAJOR role in ALL of Hollywood casting. IMAGE is EVERYTHING in film, and racism, sterotypes and fears influence studio executives all the time. This blog was a Wonderful and precise analysis Nicole…and the Tyler Perry analogy was a spot on zinger!

  • Gloria Chabane
    September 22nd, 2012 9:52 am

    Someone make me understand why Viola Davis wasn’t cast in this role?

  • Jean Pierre
    September 27th, 2012 2:26 am

    I think Zoe is not a great fit for the role but she is qualified for the part. She is Afro Latina woman and really does have more of an Afro Mulata type look like Alica Keys and Halle Berry then she has a Latina look. She did say in an interview in the Dominican Republic that she is a black woman. Yo soy una mujer Negra. That is exactly what she said.