Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone? Why skin color casting in Hollywood is complicated

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When it comes to casting black talent, Hollywood can appear to both not know what it’s doing, and to know exactly what it’s doing.

Such is the case with the reported casting of actress Zoe Saldana to play the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone. The choice confused, rattled and in some cases angered both black film enthusiasts and fans of Nina Simone. How could a slim woman with fine features be chosen to play Simone, a powerhouse who was unapologetic about her full, African-descended features?

The questions about choosing Saldana are not about her acting ability as much as they are about why the makers of this film seem to want to “pretty up” Nina Simone’s image. With a deep, smoky voice, wide nose, full lips, coffee bean-colored skin and defiantly natural hair, Nina’s unconventional, almost militant beauty was an inextricable part of her politics and her awareness as a musician. To create a movie about her, only to cast an actress who looks nothing like her, is, simply, an insult.

It’s also confusing, considering the reported first choice for the film was Mary J. Blige — a singer who may bear a closer resemblance, but whose more recent claim to fame was shrilly singing about chicken wraps for Burger King.

Hollywood has a history of playing fast and loose with the appearance of black historical figures in films. Sometimes, the lack of similarity between an actor and a character he’s portraying is overshadowed by the performance itself, as was the case with Denzel Washington playing the lighter-skinned and taller Malcolm X. And while a choice can initially raise an eyebrow, such as Diana Ross portraying Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, sometimes critics are surprised and pleased by the outcome, as Roger Ebert was in his 1972 review of the movie. (It should be noted that Malcolm X was directed by Spike Lee, and that Lady Sings the Blues was financed by black-owned Motown.)

Sometimes, the actor’s ability outshines his differences from the character he’s playing. That’s what comedy fans are looking forward to when comedian Jay Pharoah steps into the role of President Obama in the coming season of Saturday Night Live. Jay Pharoah is considerably darker than the president, but his deft impersonations allow him to channel almost any major black male figure in popular culture. To note, SNL’s previous go-to-guy for President Obama skits, Fred Armisen (who is not black), drew more groans than laughs. Handing the role to an able black comedian could be an improvement.

And still, even when Hollywood chooses a black actor who bears a closer resemblance to a historical or cultural figure, eyebrows can be raised. Such was the case when Beyoncé was chosen to play Etta James in Cadillac Records in 2008. The visual similarities were passable for a glossy Hollywood film, but many — including the late Etta herself — questioned whether Beyoncé, with her sweetheart image, could play a tortured, drug-addicted blues singer. (Whether she pulled it off or not remains a subject of debate.)

As for the Zoe/Nina casting, some have taken a wait-and-see attitude. But most critics of the choice are understandably miffed, seeing as a how a major cultural icon who defied the narrow ideals of beauty is now being played by someone who fits squarely into them. And considering that the makers of the Nina Simone flick are selling it as a “love story,” Saldana’s casting adds another layer of insult, subtly suggesting that an actress who actually resembles Simone couldn’t possibly be a viable love interest on the big screen.

How revolutionary would it be, really, to cast someone like Adepero Oduye, praised for her powerful performance in last year’s Pariah, for yet another powerful role as Nina Simone? To many, she seems like a more obvious choice; names like Viola Davis and Alfre Woodard have also been suggested. Yet the question remains — how could talent like this be overlooked in the first place? Is it still too much to see a black woman, lips full, nose wide, embody talent, power and sensuality? If that’s the case, then it’s obvious Nina Simone wasn’t  just ahead of her time — she is ahead of our time, too.

Veronica Miller can be found on Twitter at @veronicamarche.