Ever since it was announced that “Avatar” star Zoe Saldana had been tapped to play jazz/blues/folk-singer and activist Nina Simone, there has been sizable backlash from the Simone family and around the blogosphere, because Saldana is deemed too light-skinned for the role, according to the New York Times.
Last month, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Dominican-Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana was chosen to play Simone in a biopic about her life by writer and director Cynthia Mort and executive producer Jimmy Iovine. While the lead role in the jazz icon’s life is a sure win for Saldana, family members and bloggers believe it is a loss for Simone and her legacy.
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On Simone’s official Facebook page, Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, complained to followers about the decisions movie makers have been making on behalf of her mother, writing:
How many of you know my mother’s FIRST love was classical music? Do you know the hours she practiced preparing to audition for the Curtis Institute of Music only to be rejected because of the color of her skin?
As a child, my mother was told her nose was too big and she was too dark yet she graduated valedictorian of her high school class – The Allen School for Girls – AND, skipped two grades.
Kelly later told the NY Times, “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise this [Saldana being cast] is not the best choice.”
Tiffani Jones of blog Coffee Rhetoric wrote in an article entitled “(Mis)Casting Call: The Erasure of Nina Simone’s Image“:
[After Mary J. Blige didn’t pan out as the lead], folks were left to ponder who’d play Nina; bloggers and fans campaigned for the Black actresses and entertainers they thought would be more of an appropriate fit for the role – including Viola Davis, Lauryn Hill, India Arie and especially Adepero Oduye who starred, to wide acclaim, in “Pariah” – so many were left with feelings of confusion and dismay when Afro-Latina actress, Zoe Saldana was announced as Mary J. Blige’s replacement.
And it’s a very valid gripe. Black actresses – particularly those with darker skin- often lament their experiences having to navigate the politics of an industry, that’s rarely willing to cast them in non-stereotypical roles, because [despite being attractive and immensely talented and right for the role] they don’t have the palatable “mainstream look” the Hollywood machine requires of some of its Black actresses; so they often lose plum roles to, what I call, the Halle Berry/Paula Patton appeal… and that destructive notion often places Black identified but racially ambiguous looking actresses on a pedestal as ideal representations of the Black female aesthetic.
Watch Simone sing “Four Women,” which is about four “Negro” women who have different complexions…and stories:
And the criticism hasn’t stopped there. A Demeriese Valier of Baton Rouge, La., is even petitioning both Iovine and Mort to “replace Zoe Saldana with an actress who actually looks like Nina Simone.” As of press time, 2,822 supports had signed the petition.
So here we are: While no one is arguing that Saldana isn’t talented enough to play the role, colorism and racism alongside a fervent dedication to her Blackness — Simone reveled in African headdresses and clothes with minimal make-up and natural hair — were inextricable to her experience.
Is it defensible to have a light-skinned Afro-Latina represent Simone’s life to the world when she clearly cannot visually communicate the oft times contentious experience Simone endured — and often triumphed over — just to exist in the very White space of Hollywood and the world?
Is it a disservice to the integrity of Simone’s experience to represent her with an actress who is devoid of the very characteristic that shaped both her successes and failures?
Or, in 2012, should we simply celebrate the choice of Saldana as a competent and studied Black actress who was chosen because she can best bring Simone’s story to fore?