Francesca Andre has a message for everyone with her short film, Charcoal. The main theme of her film is about colorism and its damaging effects on the black diaspora. Her two main characters go through a journey of self-acceptance and self-awareness, and that journey is something Andre hopes is replicated in her viewers.
I’ve had the chance to speak with Andre recently about her film (which you can learn more about in a previous article and the trailer below) as well as her opinions on how colorism affects us. I also asked about the Dove ad that sparked controversy, and how we can heal as a people from our societal wounds. Andre offers clear insight into her own journey towards healing and how we can continue the process of healing in our own lives. Here are highlights from that conversation.
Charcoal can be seen at the Yonkers Film Festival Nov. 3-8.
The inspiration for Charcoal:
Colorism is something that has impacted my life at a very young age. It’s very common in Haiti—it’s not white people versus black people, it’s really lighter skin versus darker skin. At a very young age, I was made aware of that. When I was probably five years old, I received a dark-skinned doll. When I took it home, people started making fun of the doll, saying the doll is ugly. My mother being brown-skinned, my grandmother being lighter-skinned, and my grandfather and my father being darker skinned men, people just made comparisons to the skintones.
Colorism and the lasting effects of racism in the black diaspora:
We’re still dealing with the consequences [of racism] as a people when it comes to economic empowerment, how we are being perceived and anything else—colorism sits right in there. It’s still affecting us, we’re still dealing with it, it’s not a thing of the past. We’re still healing from it. Those of us who are aware and are making a conscious decision to talk about it. You can’t really talk about racism or the advancement of us as a people and not talk about colorism.
Here in America, [the Dove colorism ad] was a mainstream brand that everyone can see, but you have some smaller brands, when you go to Caribbean markets that are selling [similar] products. You have women making skin-bleaching lotion and selling it to other women. I guess for some people here, it’s not as blatant as it is in other cultures—if you go to CVS, you probably won’t be able to find it, right? But it’s happening. It never went away, at least from my experience; as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always known about these products.
Even thinking about “good” hair,the hair is not closer to our hair texture. It’s something closer to European hair texture. But when you look at our hair and the versatility of our hair, to me it’s like, really good hair! It took me a long time to reprogram myself, my thoughts, and redefine what “good” hair was for me to access [my hair] and accept it, love it, and embrace it…I don’t have any problems with it now.
On how to heal from colorism:
I do feel like we need to start having conversations, and an important part of that is the healing part of that. I think you will see that you’ll find more women going natural more than ever. Here’s what’s fascinating: how so many black women did not know their hair period because they just haven’t been dealing with their hair…they did not know how to take care of their hair; it’s been processed. When they find out what products work on our hair and what they can do to make their hair do this and that. Again, it’s knowledge and healing and more women are stepping out. It’s not a strange thing now to see a black woman with natural hair in the workplace. There was a time when this wasn’t a thing. Now, more people are going natural, embracing it and being unapologetic about it. I feel like we’re going forward. Even with skintones, too—[online campaigns and phrases like] “My melanin’s poppin’,” #BlackGirlMagic—we are healing collectively. I hope the men are using those terms as well; I hope the men are healing because they are also victims of colorism. I hope that we as a people stop the vicious cycle.
…First of all, I think [the first step to healing is] knowing what colorism is. Many people don’t even know what colorism means. It really starts the conversation. It’s hard to change beliefs, but one way we can do that as a people is to talk—ask [about it] and dialogue. Increase representation [in the media] to make women more confident in who they are and how they look. As an artist and storyteller, the way I [change] people is including it and showing it, talking about it and not pushing it away…Whenever I see a girl with natural hair, I tell them “I love your hair” or “I love your twists”; I make it my job to remind them because all the messages they are receiving are the opposite.
How Charcoal can start viewers’ journeys toward self-acceptance:
I think there’s a universal aspect to it. I hope people feel inspired and hopeful. I hope people find some sort of healing or be the beginning of that journey. We all can relate to pain, and the characters go through that, but we can see how they overcome that.♦
This interview has been edited and condensed.
When Chabelly Pacheco – a Dominican-American who moved to Long Island when she was five years old – walks into her favorite Dominican salon on Brooklyn’s Graham Avenue, it’s more like entering a home than a business.
The salon is filled with smoke, hair spray and women of all ages. Everyone in the room greets her: The hairdressers kiss her on both cheeks, while the other customers say hello. Daughters sit alongside their mothers with curlers in their hair, feet dangling from their chairs.
For first-generation Dominican women like Pacheco, these salons can serve as a place to bond with fellow Dominicans.
“I don’t really feel connected to my culture,” said Yoeli Collado, a friend of Pacheco’s who moved to Long Island from the Dominican Republic when she was three years old. “When I speak Spanish, I feel powerful… But other than that I don’t have much I can connect to. So going to a Dominican salon is part of my culture. For me, it’s one of the only ways I can identify.”
Other diasporas have a wide range of cultural public spaces. There are Chinese community centers and Indian music venues, Russian tea rooms and Ghanaian restaurants.
For Dominicans, the salon plays an outsized cultural role.
Fascinated by these spaces – and as a scholar studying women’s issues – I wanted to see how salons and Dominican beauty regimens influence female Dominican-American identity.
I found that although Dominican-American women I interviewed spoke warmly of the salons they frequent, Dominican hair culture is far from glamorous. In many ways, it’s a pricey, burdensome ritual steeped in a colonial beauty standards – a contradiction that young Dominican women are grappling with today.
‘The hair carries the woman’
As in many cultures, Dominican female beauty standards can be burdensome. Though most Dominicans tend to have curly, textured hair, the culture favors long, straight hair. Curly, frizzy or kinky hair is called “pelo malo,” which translates to “bad hair,” and many women feel pressured to treat it.
“I hear my mom say it all the time,” Pacheco said. “‘The hair carries the woman’ – that’s the mantra in my family. If your hair is fine, you’re fine.”
Despite the lively atmosphere of the salon, it’s not all fun. It can be costly, painful and time-consuming.
Sociologist Ginetta Candelario has found that Dominican women visit salons far more frequently than any other female population in the U.S., spending up to 30 percent of their salaries on beauty regimens.
Many Dominican kids don’t have any say over how to style their hair; their parents force them to get it straightened. This was evident in Pacheco’s salon, where young girls tugged at the tight curlers in their hair, complaining that the dryers were burning their scalps.
“You’re taught from a young age that your hair has to be straight to be pretty, to get a job, to get a boyfriend, to be called pretty by your mother,” Pacheco told me.
It all stems from a strict hair culture in the Dominican Republic, where young women can actually be sent home from school or work if their hair isn’t worn in the “preferred way.” Women with untreated, natural hair can even be barred from some public and private spaces.
Though discrimination against curly hair isn’t as pronounced in New York, many Dominican-American women told me that they nevertheless feel the same sort of pressure.
No such thing as black
The Dominican tradition of straight hair has it roots in colonial rule under Spain; it eventually became a way to imitate the higher classes and to separate themselves from their Haitian neighbors, who once occupied their country and championed the négritude movement, which was started by black writers to defend and celebrate a black cultural identity.
Dominicans believe that Haitians are “black,” while Dominicans – even those who clearly descend from African heritage – fall into other nonblack categories.
The process of differentiation is referred to as “blanqueamiento,” which translates to “whitening,” and hair straightening is simply one of many ways Dominicans try to distinguish themselves from Haitians. In fact, even though the Dominican Republic ranks fifth in countries outside of Africa that have the largest black populations, many black Dominicans don’t consider themselves black.
“[Blackness] is a taboo in the DR,” Stephanie Lorenzo, a 25-year-old Dominican-American from the Bronx, explained. “You don’t want to be black.”
According to Yesilernis Peña, a researcher at the Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo who studies race in the Latin Caribbean, there are six established racial categories in the Dominican Republic, and they tend to correlate with one’s economic class: white, mixed race, olive, Indian, dark and black.
Meanwhile, a light-skinned elite has consolidated most of the political power, while many of the country’s black people – who make up the majority of the population – live in extreme poverty. So straightening one’s hair can be seen as an attempt to climb the social ladder – or at least imitate those with money and power.
“When people relax their hair or bleach it, they do it because they want to be closer to the people who hold the power,” Dominican salon owner Carolina Contreras told the magazine Remezcla in 2015.
‘But I like it straight’
Given the fraught history of hair, it’s clear that Dominican salons, with the beauty regimens they perpetuate, are complex, contradictory places.
Pacheco – who grew up in America and loves spending time at the salon – is aware that she’s also tacitly succumbing to beauty norms steeped in racism.
“Obviously it’s a construct, and it puts pressure on women and sometimes I feel conflicted about getting my hair straightened,” she said. “That deeply rooted colonial oppression is still there. But then I’m like, ‘I like it straight.’”
In sociologist Ginetta Candelario’s study “Hair-Race-ing: Dominican Beauty Culture and Identity Production,” she wonders if beauty can be a source of empowerment, even if it means using time and resources, while suppressing one’s “blackness.”
Through her extensive research in Dominican salons in New York, Candelario did find that women can, in fact, empower themselves through these beauty norms. By physically altering their appearance, they could get better jobs and use their beauty as “symbolic and economic capital.”
But she points out that in order for this beauty regimen to exist in the first place, it requires “ugliness to reside somewhere, and that somewhere is in other women, usually women defined as black.”
Reimagining beauty, reinventing space
In 2014, Carolina Contreras opened up Miss Rizos, a natural hair salon located in the colonial city center of Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital.
The 29-year-old Dominican-American wanted her salon to champion “pajón love” (Afro love), and to reimagine what a Dominican salon and a Dominican beauty regimen might look like. The salon, which caters to Dominican-Americans, encourages women to wear their Afro-textured hair with pride.
It was at Contreras’s salon where Stephanie Lorenzo decided to do “the big chop” in 2015: She cut off her chemically altered hair, leaving her with a small Afro.
“Around the same time, I was becoming more in touch with my African roots as an American woman,” she said. “[Cutting my hair] was part of acknowledging that we are also black.”
Back in Brooklyn, Chabelly Pacheco’s hairdresser said that during her 30 years working in salons in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and New York, she’s noticed more women asking for natural hair treatments. In fact, many older Dominican women are now starting to change the way they see their own hair. Carolina Contreras’ mother told me that she decided to go natural to be closer to the way God imagined her.
Contreras, however, is quick to note that the natural hair movement isn’t meant to shame women who do choose to straighten their hair. Instead, it’s simply about making textured hair accepted, appreciated and celebrated.
Perhaps by embracing all different kinds of hair, salons – which bring Dominican women closer to their culture and to each other – can also bring Dominican women closer to their natural selves.
Colorism might be a spectre of a racist past, but it still haunts the African diaspora, especially black women, today. With the popularity of bleaching creams still in existence around the world and systemic prejudices leveled against darker-skinned women daily, Charcoal is a film that aims to get to the root of colorism and extricate it.
The film, made by Haitian-born film director and photographer Francesca Andre, focuses on two women who try their hardest to overcome their own self-hate.
Charcoal captures the parallel stories of two black women and their lifelong journey to overcome internalized colorism, find self-acceptance and ultimately redemption. Despite the vast distances between them, these women both face a barrage of social messages from strangers and loved ones alike: That their darker complexion makes them less worthy of love, acceptance or respect. Yet through this painful erosion of their self-worth, these women rediscover their power and undergo a metamorphosis. They fully embrace the beauty, versatility and dignity of their melanin and begin to disrupt the generational cycle of self-hatred within communities of color.
Charcoal has been featured many times over in the press, including Shadow and Act, Afropunk, Bridgeport Daily Voice, The Brooklyn Reader, ThinkProgress, Caribbean Life and Sheen Magazine, as well as publications from around the world. The film has also won several awards, including the 2017 Reel Sisters Best Narrative Short Award, 2017 Crystal Ship Filmmakers Visionary Award, and the 2017 Women of African Descent Juror’s Choice Certificate.
This won’t be the last time JUST ADD COLOR covers Charcoal, so stay tuned. Until then, check out the film’s trailer and see what you think.
JUST ADD COLOR is known as a place that discusses representation in entertainment. But let’s be honest; there are a lot of sites and online personalities that discuss representation in entertainment. And even though my biggest interest is in how entertainment highlights Americans of all backgrounds, I’m even more interested in how those of us that aren’t always represented still manage to find ourselves and our voices, despite society telling us we shouldn’t even bother.
If I may be a little transparent here, I have to say that I’m surprised other sites who do focus on representation, particularly race, in entertainment haven’t focused on cultivating self-worth just as fiercely. It’s one thing to talk about what’s wrong with representation, and it’s another to discuss that as well as give examples and tips on how to combat the depression and isolation that comes with being weighed down by stereotypes. I wish there was a site that helped me overcome my issues growing up, so with that in mind, I’d like to provide that kind of a site to others. Thus, the introduction to a new permanent part of my site, #RepresentYourStory.
I’ll start off the #RepresentYourStory initiative with myself. I am a black woman who has had to face her share of colorism, hair politics, and general odd treatment growing up. As I’ve told Shaun from the “No, Totally” podcast, I might not be the lightest person in the world, but I’ve still felt like I’ve been given “light-skinned privileges” for other reasons beyond my skin color.
The stereotypical image of a black girl is one that unfortunately still seems to relate back to the “pickaninny”, a stereotype that vilifies black children, especially those with darker skin and coarser hair. I, on the other hand, was born with long, thick, medium-grade hair, and I’ve had to field questions of “Is that your real hair?” to people literally praising me solely because of my hair. Some folks even thought I wasn’t black because I had long, loose (and at that time, permed straight) hair. People have wanted to separate me from my African-American heritage because of my hair, declaring me to be French, Caribbean, Indian and so forth. That kind of attention made me feel really strange growing up, like I was a freak. I don’t like being made to feel like I’m somehow better just because of how I look, since anyone, regardless of their skin color or hair texture, can be beautiful. Top it off with the fact that, apparently, I am a highly sensitive person, something I don’t think many teachers expected from a child in general, much less a black child. I have always dealt with being the odd person out in many different scenarios.
In short, I’ve grown up often feeling like a token, especially in my mostly-white high school (the first time I’d been in a mostly-white environment); because I didn’t act in accordance to people’s narrow definitions of black behavior, I was automatically given other privileges and allocations and, in many ways, placed closer to whiteness. Meanwhile, other black kids in high school would look at me strange, as if I’d done something wrong, when I’d never asked for the treatment I was given. The irony is that I’m one of the most black-focused people there are, with a love for my blackness instilled in me by my mother. You can listen to me talk about my life on Shaun’s podcast here:
I resented being thought of as a token then, and I especially resent it now, since social media is, in many ways, like another big high school. There are many gatekeepers to what it means to “be black” on the internet, and I often don’t fit the bill for what their version of “blackness” entails. Having come up against that type of thinking on the internet in a very personal way, I have little patience for black folks telling other black folks how they should or shouldn’t think in order to be accepted as “black.”
It was only until a few years ago, particularly when I started my journey into owning a website, that I began to find myself and my voice. I realized that I didn’t have to feel weird because of my sensitivity, my hair, or how people viewed me. The baggage folks were placing on me wasn’t a reflection of me; it was a reflection of their own insecurities with themselves as well as their own narrow view of what blackness can be. I’ve always been a person who didn’t follow the crowd, but now I know there is a true strength in not being part of the flock of society. Being different is not a weakness. Being different is a strength if you can value the insight there is in being different, and if you have the internal fortitude it takes to own that difference. I admit that I didn’t always have that kind of fortitude. To be honest, there are days when I’m still not up to snuff 100 percent. But I’d rather be myself, be different, and own my self-worth than try to portray everything to everyone else.
So now that I’ve given my story, I want to read yours. How do you represent your story? What affected you growing up or later in life? What advice do you have for others who might need the same advice you needed years ago? Tell me about it! You can either submit a short article to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you need help getting started, you can fill out my #RepresentYourStory questionnaire, and I’ll write an article based on your responses. If you love the #RepresentYourStory initiative, share it with everyone you know!
Either way, we can all help each other heal our wounds society has given us if we have the courage to be transparent, honest, and empathetic. Regardless of how we portray ourselves on social media, we all aren’t perfect; we’ve all had hills to climb in life. But we can all show each other the way by saying, “I’ve been there, too.”
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.
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!