The controversy over whether Zoe Saldana should play Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic is really heating up. A story that first broke on the black entertainment blog Shadow & Act, many were shocked when it was revealed that Saldana had been cast in the leading role of the first film about the beloved jazz singer and pianist — a project with no involvement from her family.
The contentious discussions that were spawned by the announcement ranged from debates over who should play the iconic Simone instead of Saldana (who many think neither looks like Simone nor has her musical chops), to whether critics are discriminating against Zoe for being “too light.”
In an essay republished on theGrio from our partner site, Clutch Magazine, Yesha Callahan writes: “Many people have written posts, tweets and blogs about Saldana not having dark enough skin, ‘blacker’ features, or resembling Nina Simone. Unfortunately, not everyone can be Halle Berry as Dorothy Dandridge. Just because she’s not in the latest Tyler Perry movie… doesn’t make her any less black than the next black actress.”
As radical as this idea may seem, Zoe has at least one fan who publicly agrees with this sentiment in the entertainment industry. In an interview with the black women’s web site Hello Beautiful, Jill Scott supported the idea that Saldana should play Simone, based on her acting abilities alone.
“Zoe is an incredible actress,” Scott told the online outlet. “I think that there should be some work done, like a prosthetic nose would be helpful and definitely some darker makeup. If Forest Whitaker can become darker in The Last King Of Scotland then I believe Nina should be treated with that respect.
“[Simone] was very adamant about her color, about her nose, about her shape and herself,” Scott continued, “and there needs to be some homage paid to that.”
Definitely true. But for this film, how homage is paid to Nina Simone’s image of beauty especially matters.
Symbolism is all-important in film. It is a visual medium; thus, the image on the screen, and the efforts that go into creating that vision, speak louder than the words coming from the actors’ lips or the reasoning in the producers’ minds regarding their choices.
Nina Simone stood for the celebration of the dark brown woman of African descent — a celebration that is all too rare. Thus, the selection of a lighter woman to tell her story could summarily negate both her message and the real history of the messenger.
Surely, Scott means well by making this suggestion. Saldana is a good actress. And she would not be the first to wear a prosthetic nose, as Nicole Kidman famously did in her Oscar-winning role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. But making a black actress look “blacker” to play a black woman raises social issues that Simone herself faced head on. This choice, if made by Nina’s biopic producers, would instead evade them.
Hollywood already prefers Saldana, who is a black Latina, when it comes to portraying African-American women. This became evident when she snagged the role of Lt. Uhura in the Star Strek reboot.
Yes, Saldana is talented and on that basis deserves the Simone role. But, the story of Nina Simone is not just fodder for a blockbuster. Saldana has been able to earn the star-status that puts her in the running to be cast, because she can draw box office dollars. This is directly related to our culture’s preference for lighter-complexioned blacks, and gives Zoe an edge over actresses who really look like Nina.
This has been going on in Hollywood since the days of Lena Horne. As much as we all love Lena, this unfair underestimation of black women of deeper browns is something Simone used her platform to decry.
Nina Simone famously sang a song about this devastating phenomenon, and how it crushes black women’s self esteem, called Images (Of a Wayward Soul). Her haunting performance is based on the lines of a poem called No Images by Waring Cuney: