(L) Nina Simone, (R) Zoe Saldana
As controversy over Zoe Saldaña being cast as Nina Simone continues to increase, I’ve found myself going back to my earliest recollections of Nina’s music. Some of my earliest memories of music involve Nina Simone, in fact one of the first CDs my dad bought me was hers. I remember feeling such awe and power in her voice. Considering the musical and historical status of the High Priestess of Soul, it shouldn’t be surprising that everyone has an opinion on who should and shouldn’t be playing her. When news that Zoe Saldaña would play Simone began surfacing on the internet last month many people expressed strong feelings of disdain. An online petition on Change.org which garnered more than 2,600 signatures urged the producers of the film to reconsider their casting decision.
The images of Saldaña on set that have been released over the last week have caused further outrage. Clutch, a magazine for black women, raised the following issues: “we can tell that Zoe appears darker, with a wider nose, fake teeth and an afro wig. For some, the photo begs the question: why not just hire an actress that actually resembles Nina Simone?”
Zoe Saldaña on set
Zoe Saldaña in full costume on set
Saldaña in full costume on set
This question of colorism should be considered critically in the context of the U.S. where we see so many misrepresentations of black and brown womanhood in the media. Tiffani Jones, who runs a blog entitled Coffee Rhetoric posted about Saldaña playing Simone as doing a disservice to the memory of Nina Simone. In an interview with the New York Times, Jones said the following:
“Hollywood and the media have a tendency to whitewash and lightwash a lot of stories, particularly when black actresses are concerned. When is it going to be O.K. to not be the delicate looking ideal of what the media considers blackness to be?”
It is impossible to overlook Hollywood’s complicated and problematic approach to depicting people of color. Colorism is alive and well in an industry that continues to value highly racialized body images of women. With that in mind it is also important to not delegitimize Saldaña’s decision to accept the role as denying her blackness in any way. As Akiba Solomon from Colorlines notes, it seems wrong to assert that Saldaña cannot play Simone simply because “her ancestors landed in a different part of the African diaspora.” The real issue here, which Solomon also outlines, lies in what was overlooked and deemed unimportant by the filmmakers. The casting for this film serves as an example as to how Hollywood markets roles of people of color. Solomon writes that Saldaña should not be held responsible, but rather Hollywood and mass media who continue to “prize light skin, straight hair, very thin female bodies and keen facial features.”
Fans, family, and artists have been very adamant about the importance of having a representation of Nina Simone that can center a narrative and image of the singer that embraces her curves and dark skin tone. Much of the controversy over this casting decision has been Simone fans wanting to ensure that the singer’s body image and sense of self-pride be taken seriously. Singer and actress Jill Scott, while she didn’t speak out against Saldaña in the role of Nina Simone, did address this question of respect:
”Zoe is an incredible actress–I think that she’s a fine actress. I think that there should be some work done, like a prosthetic nose would be helpful and definitely some darker makeup. If Forest Whittaker can become darker in “The Last King Of Scotland” then I believe Nina should be treated with that respect. She was very adamant about her color about her nose about her shape and her self and there needs to be some homage paid to that.”
The singer’s daughter, Simone Kelly, in addition to critiquing the filmmakers for pursuing a film that is not authorized by the Simone estate, also highlighted the importance of appearance in casting. “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose is too wide, her skin was too dark,” Kelly said in an interview. “Appearance-wise this was not the best choice.” This consideration is even more powerful when thinking about the message behind Nina Simone’s music, so much of which was about embracing female blackness, regardless of size, color, and hair. In her autobiography, I Put a Spell On You, Simone talked about how she grappled with complex ideas of beauty as an artist in her music. When talking about this process in her song, ‘Four Women,’ she said the following:
“The women in the song are black, but their skin tones range from light to dark and their ideas of beauty and their own importance are deeply influenced by that. All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair-straight, kinky, natural, which?-and what other women thought of them. Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn’t control, and until they had the confidence to define themselves they’d be stuck in the same mess forever.”
The irony then cannot be ignored. Media has unparalleled power in its ability to disseminate information and particular images. Film is no exception. Thus we must think carefully and critically of what it means to have the image of Nina Simone whose work so closely grappled with storytelling that embraced an image of ‘black is beautiful,’ as depicted along Hollywood’s lines of physical and racial comfort.
To read more on the film and casting follow links below:
New York Times: