Three Reasons Why People Have a Problem with Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone

This is a story that’s been a big dread of mine to write. Not because the issues are hard for me to understand; far from the contrary. I just didn’t want to watch the trailer for this movie. What movie am I talking about? Nina, the beleaguered movie about Nina Simone starring Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo.

Nina made tons of folks mad a few years ago, when it was in production, and now it’s making folks mad again now that the film is coming to Digital HD and VOD April 22. First, let’s take a look at the poster and the trailer, and see if you can figure out what might be at fault here.

Ealing Studios/IMDB
Ealing Studios/IMDB

Let’s also take a look at the storyline, which takes a story that has been refuted by Nina Simone’s estate and her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly:

The story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone including her rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson. (IMDB)

And for a fair comparison, let’s look at the real Nina Simone, both talking and singing:

And here are some actresses discussing their feelings about the film. If you’ll notice, every one of the actresses gives a huge sigh before answering the question, showing how difficult a position it is to take on a film like this that intersects the issues of diversity in film as well as colorism in Hollywood.

Okay, so why are people upset? We can boil it down to three reasons:

1. Hollywood’s colorism

We hear a lot about diversity as a whole, but one of the most open secrets in Hollywood along with a lack of diversity is a focus on colorism. What’s colorism? Let’s use the Racebending. com definition, since it’s the most succinct one I’ve found in a while.

“Colorism is a form of discrimination in which people are accorded differing social and economic treatment based on skin color. Colorism occurs occurs across the world and can occur within an ethnic group or between different ethnic groups. In most entertainment industries—including Hollywood—lighter skin tone is given preferential treatment and [a] darker skin tone is considered less desirable. Oftentimes, heroes are cast with lighter skin and villains are cast with darker skin.”

As the definition states, Hollywood is rife with colorism, particularly when it comes to African American and Latina roles. Colorism affects not only limits the types of roles certain women are given, but it also makes young women who watch film and television feel like their skin tone makes them ugly and a pariah of society.

It’s not lost on quite a few that Saldana, through no fault of her own, fits neatly into Hollywood’s Eurocentric-laden idea of “black beauty.”

Evidence of this can be seen in Saldana’s acting career itself; more often than not, Saldana has played exoticized love interests, whether she’s in her own skin or not (such as her roles in Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy). Even in a film role like the title role of Columbiana, her character is sexualized to an unnecessary degree.

Damon Young from The Root examines Hollywood’s usage of Saldana’s beauty in his article, “Why People Are Upset That Zoe Saldana Is Playing Nina Simone, Explained”:

“…Saldana has had a very successful run as the primary love interest in blockbuster movies. Much of this success is undoubtedly due to her acting chops, professionalism and versatility. But also, it can’t be denied that Saldana possesses certain physical features that allow her to exist within Hollywood’s general standard of beauty. In fact, she doesn’t just exist within the standard. She might be the standard. And she’s such an attractive choice for these types of roles because she fills two boxes: the diversity box and an unrealistically attractive woman….Nina Simone, however, did not exist within this standard. She possessed features more commonly associated with black women. In fact, much of her work was centered on this. It’s a vital part of her story.”

Of course, Saldana isn’t the one to blame for Hollywood using her beauty as a way to keep colorism in check. Hollywood has to gather itself to deal with the fact that it does discriminate against darker-hued women, and that its practices affect people’s self-esteem. Some examples of colorism’s negative effects:

• “…When you do see a woman of color onscreen, the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire. And in the history of television and even film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me.” —Viola Davis with The Wrap

• “To be very honest, I had to leave Hollywood because as a young child, it didn’t seem to flourish [in] my mind very well. Coming here from the islands, I didn’t even know that I was dark skinned there wasn’t a color issue in my head. I always thought I was beautiful. It wasn’t until I got in Hollywood that I started understanding there were dark-skinned blacks and light-skinned blacks and there were roles for this character and roles for that character based on a color. I left Hollywood, and in the process of leaving it, it helped me develop myself into a woman.” –The Color Purple‘s Desreta Jackson with The Grio

• “When I was like 5 years old I used to pray to have light skin because I would always hear how pretty that little light skin girl was, or I would hear I was pretty ‘to be dark skinned.’ It wasn’t until I was 13 that I really learned to appreciate my skin color and know that I was beautiful.” -Keke Palmer at the Hollywood Confidential Panel

• The original casting call for Straight Outta Compton was laced with colorism, calling for “fine girls” who are “light-skinned”, while darker-skinned girls were “poor, not in good shape.” The “hottest of the hottest” girls had to have their real hair (the other girls could wear weave; the hair discrimination is yet another level that needs to be discussed at a later time), and could be “black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too.” The unspoken thought was that only truly beautiful girls have their own hair and can be of any race, but, even with the mention of black women in the “hottest of the hottest” section, it’s still implied that to be especially beautiful as a black person, you have to be light-skinned.

So what does this have to do with Saldana playing Nina Simone? Primarily because Saldana had to be darkened up to play Simone while there were many other actresses, actresses with darker skin tones and a more Afrocentric beauty, to play Simone. In short, the film’s cast didn’t need to put Saldana in horrible prosthetics and makeup to get her to that point of mimicking Saldana’s Afrocentric beauty; they could have simply cast someone who actually looked closer to Simone from the beginning. Since we don’t have the clear reasoning as to why Saldana was cast, most have assumed that Hollywood’s preference for casting lighter skin tones had something to do with it. Having Saldana play a woman who was all about promoting the beauty of darker skin and wider features runs counter to Simone’s work. To sum it up, here’s what Simone Kelly said in 2012 to the New York Times about Saldana getting cast as Simone:

“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.”

2. Fear that Saldana and the Nina crew didn’t understand Nina Simone’s basis for her art

As stated above, Simone’s work was all about blackness, in particular exalting dark-skinned, Afrocentric beauty. None of this means that Saldana is somehow not “black enough”. But, what people are saying is that Saldana’s casting blocks other women of color who are better suited to the role, and the colorism at the root of that blockage is what Simone was fighting against with her art.

What has made people even more on edge about Saldana playing Simone is that some feel Saldana doesn’t understand (or want to understand) the issues of race in America. Saldana has been taken to task for her comments about how “there is no such thing as people of color.” Technically, what Saldana was attempting to say is that people should be judged on their own merits, not by the racial constructs set up by society, but her point came across to some as her wanting to be “colorblind.” Saldana’s comments are referenced in this Essence article, “Why Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone Doesn’t Work,” by Josie Pickens:

“My argument against Whites making a film about badass, radical black omen like Nina Simone–and an actress who sometimes identifies as Afro-Latina (but most times claims not to see or understand color) portraying her–is that quite frankly, we cannot afford the luxury of letting another one of our heroes be recast as some gentler, more digestible version of themselves. …The casting of Nina was intentional, as the casting was intentional in the film Gods of Egypt and countless other films attempting to tell Black stories through anti-Black lenses.”

The “Whites” Pickens could have been referring to are the team behind Nina, which is predominately white. Jezebel posted pictures of the crew, and while they didn’t put commentary with the photos, its implied that the crew didn’t know what pitfalls they were falling into because of a probable lack of awareness of black issues, or even the many different types of black beauty.

Singer India Arie said it best in her interview with Business Insider when addressing how Simone looks in the film:

“It made me sad. The way she looked in the movie was ugly. Whether or not Nina Simone was beautiful in your eyes, I thought she was beautiful. But in this movie, she just looked weird. Her skin looked weird, and her nose looked weird. It made me wonder, was that how the filmmakers see how her? Did they not think she was beautiful? Were they like, ‘Yeah, we got it! That’s how she looked.'”

(However, it’s worth noting that the director of the film, Cynthia Mort, has sued the film’s production company, saying that she doesn’t like the film that was ultimately created—a film that was going to focus on Simone’s artistry and activism. Her suit claims, according to The Hollywood Reporter, that the production company acted to “frustrate Mort’s involvement in the film, thereby breaching the Director Agreement.” Such frustrations include edits to the film and a lack of communication of those edits to Mort.)

3. It just looks bad

I don’t think I need to explain this one with a long paragraph. The makeup, the accent, the story, and everything else about it just looks off, to say the absolute least about it. Just take a look at the poster and trailer again and compare it to actual video of Simone to see what I’m writing about.

Okay, the film’s bad. But how much flack does Zoe Saldana deserve?

There’s been some issue as to how much of the blame is on Saldana and how much of it is on the Hollywood filmmaking process itself. There’s two schools of thought; that the actress should know when and when not to take a role and that Hollywood has to remove itself from its Eurocentric way of thinking about race, color, and racial/ethnic representation as a whole. The debate is compounded with the fact that Saldana is Afro-Latina, and as a member of the African diaspora, many feel like she should be given the chance to play a black legend.

As the actresses in the video stated above, Saldana is a fine actress. The critiques about the film aren’t directly about her as her own person, but how Hollywood has kept its colorism ceiling in check when it comes to which black actresses can play which character. But it’s hard to critique the film without some believing that Saldana’s blackness, and the blackness of all light-skinned black people, are in question.

Blackness should never be in question. What is in question is the lack of responsibility involved when it came to making a film that properly represented Simone, her art, and her message, which revolved primarily around colorism and racism. Seeing Saldana in what is effectively blackface (or as Arie called it, “black(er) face”), goes slap in the face of Simone’s message. Even without the colorism angle, there should have been a responsibility to not make a film that would dull down Simone’s legacy to just a story based on the rumor of a romance between her and her manager, a rumor that’s been repeatedly refuted by Simone’s own people.

Again, it can all be boiled down to two points. First, Simone Kelly’s assessment to Time of Saldana and her part in the film:

“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so ficiously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture. It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”

And second, Arie’s comments to Business Insider:

Zoe has said that playing Nina Simone is her truth. Does she deserve any of this blame?

I don’t know her and I don’t think she did anything wrong. If I were in her shoes and I admired Nina Simone the way that I hear she does, I would have said yes, too, and I don’t even think I can act. If they asked me to sing Nina Simone, I got that. But I never pursued it because I felt it was not my place. And I don’t know if it was her place to do that.

I think they cast Zoe Saldana because they wanted a big name, but that makes me ask, ‘Is the name Nina Simone not big enough to get people to come to the movie?'”

What do you think of the Saldana-Simone movie controversy? Give your opinions in the comments section!

 

  • Michelle Kirkwood

    To be fair, Zoe Saldana actually did not want to take the role of SImone at first (she said she turned it down for at least a year before finally accepting it.) Also Saldana isn’t light-skinned at all—she’s a dark brown woman who has said that she is proud of her Afro-Latina heritage.