I’m not the only one who’s unsure how to feel after watching the trailer for Nina, a biopic about the late Grammy Award-winning singer, classical pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone, set to premiere April 22.
Controversy originally sparked after pictures surfaced of Zoe Saldana, a famous actress of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent chosen to portray Simone, on set wearing dark makeup and a prosthetic nose in what many are calling blackface.
Nina Simone was an iconic African-American vocalist and performer from North Carolina who represented black power and beauty during the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. Many even called her the voice of the Civil Rights Movement. Her songs became anthems within the black community during a time of outright oppression and dire hope.
She wrote “Mississippi Goddam” as a reaction to the 1963 assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young African-American girls. She also proudly performed songs such as “Young, Gifted and Black” to crowds across the country and made a point after shows to speak with fans who were especially moved by her work.
Simone was adamant and extremely vocal about the need for members of the black community to recognize their unique beauty, history and culture. Her physical image played a huge role in her message.
She had dark brown skin, a wide nose and full lips that she was damn proud of, and she wanted black girls everywhere to feel the same. More than 40 years later, the black community has progressed, yet still struggles with the issue of colorism within the community.
In a time that seems to be heading toward progress for Black Hollywood, with the acknowledgement of #OscarsSoWhite and the discussion of the lack of roles available to black actors, one wouldn’t have expected this casting.
I’m not denying the acting talent of Saldana, or trying to make this an ethnic issue, but it is about race. This is a time where acknowledgement of oneself is widening and darker women are constantly subjected to roles of submission and oppression in Hollywood. One would optimistically assume that the biopic of an iconic woman with dark brown skin would be played by … well, a woman with dark brown skin.
Not only does it simply seem wrong to cast Saldana, it feels inauthentic. Simone had such a distinct image and real personality to her fans, but Saldana’s darkened makeup reflects otherwise. Saldana’s popularity and recognizable face doesn’t work to her favor in this case because she just doesn’t create the visual effect that an actress that naturally resembled Simone might have: a naturally wide nose and full features that played such a huge role in Simone’s iconic image.
Saldana told In-Style magazine last summer, “I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either.”
As if two wrongs make a right.
Simone’s daughter Simone Kelly spoke on the light-skinned casting of her brown-skinned mother to the New York Times in 2012, stating, “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” and, “appearance-wise, this is not the best choice.”
Saldana defended her role as Simone in an interview with HipHollywood: “I don’t care who tells me that I am not this and I am not that. I know who I am and I know what Nina Simone means to me, so that is my truth and that set me free.”
I also know what Oprah means to me as a black woman in journalism who started from the bottom, but I wouldn’t insist on playing her in a movie with a prosthetic nose and dark makeup. It’s not because I’m not “black” enough to represent a black icon, but because I’m aware of the oppression that dark woman face.
Saldana, not seeing the issue with her casting, reflects her ignorance of the bigger picture, or maybe it’s just another job for her. However, for many it’s a slap in the face and a reminder that you will never be casted for a respected role … not even one that looks like you.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Newtown grafitti’s Flickr Account.
Racquel Royer is a freshman journalism major and may be reached at Royer.firstname.lastname@example.org.