When a studio produces a motion picture about the lives of black artists, they can never seem to do it right.
When it first came to light that a biopic would be done about Nina Simone, there was probably three-point-five seconds of happiness between that news and the news that Zoe Saldana would be playing Miss Simone. And then confusion appeared, then disbelief, and then anger wiggled its way into the mix.
I’m not going to give Miss Simone’s entire life story because there’s the internet and then this biopic as well, but for the sake of this article, here is the main fact that you need to know: Nina Simone was a dark-skinned black woman. The backlash that the studio and, of course, Zoe Saldana, received was, rightfully so, because of this blatant “blind” casting. Not only is Saldana nowhere near the complexion of Nina Simone, but she was painted to look dark-skinned and, it’s rumored, that she wears a prosthetic nose throughout the movie.
It’s been months since the initial announcement and trailer for the movie was released, and the outward blatant disgust from the black community has seemingly died down. Zoe Saldana has finally responded to criticisms of her portrayal of this role. Saldana claims that:
“There is no one way to be black. I’m black the way I know how to be. You have no idea who I am. I am black. I’m raising black men. Don’t you ever think you can look at me and address me with such disdain…The script probably would still be lying around, going from office to office, agency to agency, and nobody would have done it. Female stories aren’t relevant enough, especially a black female story… I made a choice. Do I continue passing on the script and hope that the ‘right’ black person will do it, or do I say, ‘You know what? Whatever consequences this may bring about, my casting is nothing in comparison to the fact that this story must be told…The fact that we’re talking about her, that Nina Simone is trending? We [f**king] won. For so many years, nobody knew who the [f**k] she was…she is essential to our American history. As a woman first, and only then as everything else.”
Zoe Saldana is a black woman who happens to be a fantastic and lovable actress with a very successful career. I’m not going to deny that. There are some things in her statement that I whole-heartedly agree with. Yes, sista is definitely right when she says that there is not one specific way to be black, which is something I think a lot of black people struggle with at some point. YES, she is definitely right when she says that the stories of black women are never deemed as important enough to put on the big screen. We are slaying the game now that Nina Simone is getting a biopic! Woo hoo! #BlackGirlMagic all the way!
But, Zoe, you missed the damn point, and, sista, I think your light-skin privilege is showing a bit.
Nina Simone spoke out about being a dark-skinned black woman in her work, and to blatantly ignore that, cast a light-skinned black woman in her place, and then proceed to paint this light-skinned black woman at least five shades darker is disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to Miss Simone’s legacy, but it’s also deeply hurtful and perpetuates the erasure of dark-skinned black women in the industry and in our society. There is an abundance of powerful and talented dark-skinned black actresses who could have done this part justice, and, if we’re being honest, those actresses you just thought of probably could have delivered this role ten times better because they’re seasoned and veteran performers. What about Viola Davis? Naomi Campbell? Gabrielle Union? Lupita Nyong’o? Danai Gurira? If the studio thinks that they have to stick a fake nose on you and make you at least five shades darker just to play a role, then you shouldn’t be playing that character.
The studio didn’t want Miss Simone’s blackness, let’s be real. They wanted her story mixed with Saldana’s soft cheekbones and thin lips.
And I get it: Saldana wanted Nina Simone’s story to be heard and appreciated. I applaud her for thinking that way, but she needed to take a step back and realize that there are other ways to be part of the conversation without being front and center. Honestly, she could have let it find the ‘right’ actress, an actress who resembled Miss Simone’s skin tone and features. An actress they wouldn’t have to paint an unnaturally dark color. And if Saldana was really serious about it, she could have easily suggested a fellow black actress who is dark-skinned. She could have fought to be an executive producer and had a say in the casting. She could have sat this one out. There were several other options, and yes, she made a choice, but she made the wrong one. Saldana made a choice that completely ignored the fact that colorism is still alive and prevalent, and that the very thing Nina Simone tried to fight against, Saldana is perpetuating. Not only did she accept the role, but now she’s defending that choice by saying it does not matter that a light-skinned actress and going to portray a dark-skinned artist who referenced her dark skintone regularly. Really, Zoe?
You can’t preach that black women need our stories told more often, then act as if all the important black women are all light-skinned. Or better yet, cast only light-skinned women and just paint them darker. It’s one thing to say to dark-skinned black women, “oh, you’re just not important enough to be heard.” It’s another thing completely to say, “oh, your story is important, but your dark skin and features aren’t pretty enough to be the focal point on the big screen.”
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Until next time!