Last week Zoe Saldana came under fire for being cast as singer and activist Nina Simone in the upcoming biopic “Nina.” The controversy has centered around Saldana having to don blackface and a prosthetic nose to portray the singer more authentically. The issue has brought up questions regarding the continued lack of diversity in Hollywood.
Let’s first address the idea that Zoe Saldana is somehow not black enough to play Nina Simone, whose wide nose and full lips were distinct features. This idea only serves to further divide the African diaspora through colorism, as if skin tones and shades are what make you black. While she has broken through and been cast in mainstream movies, Saldana is Afro Latina and has certainly dealt with Hollywood racism on some level.
The outrage isn’t about Saldana being black enough to be a representative of diversity in an otherwise mostly white industry. The outrage is bigger than Saldana; it’s rooted in tokenism and the history of exclusion of those with African features who don’t fit into the Eurocentric aesthetic. It’s about the artificial limits placed on the appearance of blackness, and how casting the whitest black woman they could find fails to honor the memory of Nina Simone.
In discussing Simone’s history as an activist who spoke on the importance of authentic representation, Lisa Respers France, a senior producer for CNN’s Digital Entertainment section notes:
“To have such a woman portrayed by someone in blackface is such an affront that even before the film’s release there are calls to boycott it.”
We can take it even further to ask why it seems artificial limits are placed more on black women in the media than they are on black men. Until recently, it was hard to find a black woman on television who didn’t look like Tracee Ellis Ross with her lighter skin and loose spiral curls, or Stacy Dash with straight hair, bronze skin and green eyes. Saldana as Nina Simone reinforces this limited idea of blackness.
Black men don’t seem to suffer the same limits in the portrayal of prominent figures. Think Jamie Fox as Ray Charles, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr, Chadwick Boseman as James Brown, or Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. Not only do these actors represent a range of the appearance of blackness, their natural features are part of what made them believable as the iconic figures they played.
And for me, this is the ultimate reason Saldana is not a good fit to play Nina Simone. Setting aside the blackface and altered features, watching the trailer for “Nina” reveals that Saldana simply does not embody the character of Nina Simone in a convincing and compelling way.
Robert L. Johnson, founder and chairman of RLJ Entertainment, which acquired the film for distribution believes Saldana’s performance should stand on its own, rather than being judged based on likeness. However, it is the mismatch in likeness that makes it even more clear that Saldana was not the best casting choice.
When I watch the trailer, all see is Saldana, whose mannerisms bleed through with familiarity. Sure, Saldana probably considers this role the performance of her life, but simply does not embody Nina Simone. This has nothing to do with her ability as an actress, but rather highlights the reality that when playing a prominent and iconic figure, likeness is important.
Not only is her accent inconsistent, neither her voice nor her presence capture the depth and complexity of Nina Simone. Where Saldana’s characters in “Avatar” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” felt powerful, something about her portrayal of Nina Simone seemed delicate. Even in at her most tired and broken moments, I cannot imagine Simone ever being anything other than robust, often to the point of downright abrasiveness.
Beyond the issues of colorism and Hollywood racism, I believe Saldana was mis-cast for the role of Nina Simone. And there are plenty of other actresses who might have been better suited without the need for blackface or prosthetic features. More importantly, they’d have been better suited because closer likeness would make their portrayals more believable.
I have no plans to boycott the film. It’s not Saldana’s fault that she was cast incorrectly. She’s clearly excited and feels a connection to the story. Unfortunately, however she feels about the performance, “Nina” will always be mired in controversy, that has nothing to do with Nina Simone’s story and everything to do with the reality that Saldana just wasn’t right for the role.Image Credits: RLJ Entertainment, The Estate of Nina Simone, Lisa Respers France