Featured, Pop Culture, Race & Politics

Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone Is What Happens When Diversity Doesn’t

When news first broke a few years ago that Zoe Saldana would be cast in Nina — the yet-to-be-released biopic about the iconic artist and activist — I wasn’t as put off about the aesthetic dissimilarity between Saldana and Simone as many of us seemed to be. Mainly because I generally don’t believe an actor needs to be a person’s doppelganger to convincingly portray that person.

But, this is where that pesky-ass irritant called context matters. Because much of Simone’s work was specifically centered in her specific experience as a dark-skinned Black woman who existed outside of America’s — White America’s and, sadly, Black America’s — general standard of what’s considered beautiful. Zoe Saldana, on the other hand, doesn’t just exist within the standard. For many, she is the standard. This, for the record, doesn’t make her any less Black than Nina Simone was. But it does bring up questions about erasure. Namely, why a biopic about Nina Simone, perhaps the least “Hollywood” celebrity America has even seen, would be given the Hollywood treatment? And while Zoe Saldana has a bankable name and known acting chops, when telling the Nina Simone story, it is actually vital to cast someone who favors her more. (Or, rather, favors her naturally without the aid of prosthetics.) In this specific instance, a doppelganger would be more appropriate. So, why not do exactly that?

Now, the first paragraph and the second paragraph of this might seem a bit incongruent. And that’s because they are. I began with an explanation of why I didn’t think Saldana being cast as Simone was a big deal. And then, in the second paragraph, I shifted gears and explained why it is; effectively contradicting myself. What you read is the result of what happened to me between the time I first heard the news and now. The idea that Saldana’s casting was inappropriate didn’t immediately come to me. Because I wasn’t as familiar with Nina Simone’s work and also I wasn’t immediately sensitive to the race and colorism-related concerns of an actress like Saldana being cast as her. But then I listened to what some of my friends — specifically Black women more naturally sensitive to it — had to say. And I read pieces about it, followed Facebook threads concerning it, and clicked on tweets explaining it. And then, after I sought out and received more information about a subject I wasn’t as well-versed in, my opinion about that subject changed.

The concept of diversity is often thought of in aesthetic and largely superficial terms. Quotas are filled so the “urban” accounts have a pointperson and your company’s cookout group photo will look less Abercrombie and more Benetton. But what diversity, true diversity, actually does is fill blind spots. It surrounds you with people with different experiences and different knowledge bases who you can lean on and learn from when necessary. And the decision to cast Zoe Saldana — and be unprepared for the blowback/criticism — is an unfortunate but predictable by-product of the lack of it. With it, however, perhaps you have someone in the room who lets the producers and the director (Cynthia Mort) know the negative response to this news wouldn’t be worth the boost having Saldana’s name attached to it would provide it. Maybe you’d have someone who’d provide a list of actresses who’d be great and less controversial choices. And maybe someone would communicate to them that they’d risk offending the very demographic who’d be the movie’s most fervent supporters.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • KB

    I saw these images on FB earlier today and yeeeaaahhhhh….NO!

  • cakes_and_pies

    In all honesty, she can have it. Nina Simone’s daughter condemned the film because it’s a “concept vision” movie of Nina Simone falling in love with her gay manager. Other actresses probably saw the script and like “Nah, Bih.”

    David Oyelowo signed onto this role before it made it big. I’m sure he’s kicking himself now.

    • Dmaclee

      I thought about Mr. Oyelowo. I know he wants this to disappear.

  • she

    Do you feel that Zoe personally should not have accepted the role? Does she have any accountability in this or is it only Hollywood?

    • she

      The reason why I ask is because Nina Simone’s aesthetic is very integral to her art and for an actor to take an autobiographical role about her, to me, it seems they should understand that. From her lips, her nose, her hair, to her skin, every physical characteristic about her was a part of her larger message.

      • L8Comer

        I seem to remember that when she was cast and got all the backlash, she questioned whether she was right for the role. Then she said some mess about Liz Taylor playing Cleopatra and that assuaged her feelings of discomfort. That’s when I stopped checking for Zoe.

        Plus idk how any black woman could be comfortable putting on black face and prosthetics for a role.

        Also, Zoe is gorgeous, but I don’t think she’s a good actress. She always seems like the same person to me, she never transforms.

        • KNeale

          Also, does anybody remember her denying racism (or rather saying that she doesn’t see race) and saying its all about sexism now?!

          • L8Comer

            Ughhh I didn’t know that. Between this and then calling Rihanna’s patois gibberish my soul is weary. Bhm just ended and people are quick with the foolishness.

          • fxd8424

            I remember her saying there is no such thing as people of color. But then, when asked during a trip to Santo Domingo by the press, she said she was a black woman. Black is a color last I checked. I grow weary of celebrities denying racism/I don’t see race. They see very well.

        • “She always seems like the same person to me, she never transforms.”

          This isn’t a bad thing, just ask Morgan Freeman – old and wise black guy.

          Before that he was pimp slapping people in front of superman.

          • Quirlygirly

            Lol!! He sure did do that..

          • L8Comer

            Eh… I don’t like it in her case. I feel like I’m watching Zoe all the time, not her character. I prefer seeing actors who can transform their mannerisms, posture, walk, gestures, speech to fit the character. Now, if you’re being typecast into the same roles over and over again that’s something different.

          • brothaskeeper

            One of my favorite movies, actually. Only Morgan Freeman could lend dignity to a pimp.

      • Ava Monique George Stewart

        Or just flip the script and have a light-skinned woman acting as Nina Simone. This blackface is the worse of all.

        There could’ve been a delicious irony to a stereotypically “pretty black girl” playing Nina Simone. The notions of who is beautiful would be shoved down your throat like an old Twilight Zone episode.

        Washington played El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz and he is much darker. I remember not liking the performance when I first walked in because I believed Malcolm’s “red”/light skin was a significant part of who he was and who he became. And I just didn’t buy a darker skinned actor playing that. Instead, Jones’ direction conveyed the development of him being a man aware of his “good hair” and what that meant in the hierarchy (colorism in America) and kept the development moving. By the end of the movie I had forgotten that Washington looked about as much like Malcolm as I did.

        But that is the power of performance and if the director and actor are deft it can be done–sans black face and prosthetics.

        This is an abomination. I viewed the trailer. It looked like she has something of the bearing and speech pattern of Simone but that makeup was ridiculous. WHAT MAKE-UP ARTIST IN HOLLYWOOD thought that was acceptable. When I look at all the wonders of CG, and costume prostethics used ( think Day-Lewis as Lincoln) it just looks like a 4 year old literally grabbed shoe polish. What black person wears that shade of foundation?

        I don’t know Saldana’s work aside from Avatar. But no, just no. She should’ve let Stacey Dash have this part.

    • No Zoe should not have. One of her original excuses was that Black actresses don’t get many opportunities so they have to attach themselves to anything they can get their hands on. But she’s part of 1 franchise that makes hundreds of millions of dollars in Star Wars and 2 franchises that are well over a billion in Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy/Marvel Universe. I’m sure she isn’t getting Jennifer Lawrence contracts for those works, but it ain’t like she’s waiting for scraps either.

  • The whole movie’s kind of a mess. Even the director’s trying to distance herself from it. Also seems like Bob Johnson’s film company is the one responsible for the distribution of it, which doesn’t make me feel like a lot of other companies probably turned it down.

    • L8Comer

      Hasn’t this film been in the making for years?? Why didn’t the just can it. I guess they’re hoping to recoup some type of return on their investment… but I doubt they will make much $ and the damage to their reputation has to be more costly.

  • she

    Additional thoughts: Hollywood’s commitment to authenticity when it comes to white historical roles is severely lacking when it comes to ethnic roles.

  • NoGames

    Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is one of the most powerful songs ever recorded. Her music is part of the sound track of my life…”Brown Eyed Handsome Man” when I am happy…” More and Then Some” when I am blue and her music stays on rotation on long car trips! As a fan, I can say I was more than confused about the casting decision. Zoe is a good actress and I will withhold judgement until I see the movie …but I am looking at this out of the whole entire side of my eye.

  • ChokeOnThisTea

    I just heard an Afro Latina woman argue this is not a problem because Zoe is still black. See. This is what happens when we acknowledge racism, but not colorism. Thankfully, her stance is in the minority as most people are outraged.

    • Lakyn

      Any argument of “she’s still Black” went out the window when they put her in dark makeup and a fake nose and I honestly don’t see how people don’t understand that.

      • ChokeOnThisTea

        Exactly.

      • KNeale

        Say it louder for the people in the back! they literally had this woman in black face. Are you keeeeeeeddddiiinnng me!!!!

      • Quirlygirly

        And even with all that.,she looks nothing like her.. it is like a woman posing as Nina Simone instead of her actually being Nina. Because this is the movie..the visual has to be close if not spot on..

    • SororSalsa

      Not to mention that Zoe is only black on the days she feels like it. I’ve seen interviews where she’s distanced herself from being black. I guess she decided this was not the time.

      • ChokeOnThisTea

        Ha! Must be nice to have the option of being black out of convenience.

    • Guest

      And facial features. Zoe’s facial features are rather keen. All those demeaning drawings from the Jim Crow era had giant lips and wide noses for a reason.

  • NoGames

    Also…was no one checking for Jill Scott or India Arie? I mean they can actually sing, too! Did I miss something? Can Zoe blow?

    • Lakyn

      I don’t even think this film got the rights to her music. Which is always a bad sign.

    • India Arie would have been perfect for this. On top of that they did such a terrible job on the makeup and prosthetic nose anyway. She still looks nothing like Nina.

  • NoGames

    True.

  • ChokeOnThisTea

    After what was arguably the most epic Black History Month ever, they just HAD to go do this. Ugh. ?

    • L8Comer

      Thank goodness it’s March 1. I would be so bent if she tarnished this epic BHM. I need a VSB post with a list counting all the ways this BHM was epic from Feb 1-Feb 29 (an extra day too!). It’s the only way to remove the stain of this insult to Nina’s memory.

      • Seconded

        • Jennifer

          Concurred. They couldn’t even wait until March 2.

      • KMN

        Awesomely Luvvie did an EPIC recap of BHM2016…

        • L8Comer

          Thanks! I haven’t checked her blog in a few weeks I’ll check it out

          • KMN

            no problem!!

    • Quirlygirly

      No worries.. the movie will be panned by everyone and it will be an awful memory. Just be happy they didn’t decide to release the movie during Black History Month. *clutches my pearls

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