By Clement Eneh
I’ve been a fan of late jazz singer Nina Simone for quite some time now and when it came to my attention that a film was being made about her life, needless to say, I was excited. That excitement neither rose nor ebbed when I discovered who would be playing Simone, actress Zoe Saldana.
However, my reaction of neutrality did not mirror popular opinion.
According to NPR, The NY Times, Huffington Post, Fox, ABC and a number of music sites and celebrity blogs, many are outraged at Saldana’s lead role.
The question is, why? Why should the talent of such a well known, award-winning actress, who was the lead in one of the highest grossing films of all time, Avatar, be in question? I scrolled endlessly through news articles and comments to gauge the public’s reaction and found an overwhelming theme of race-based worry. The truth hit me like a Mississippi school bus.
It seems Zoe Saldana isn’t “black enough.”
I felt like I’d stepped back in time. I raised an eyebrow and thought, “Do people still say things like that?” They do.
The outcry stems over the fact that Saldana, who is of black-Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, doesn’t resemble Simone, and many believe a woman of darker shade, with less so-called “Caucasian” features would have been better suited for the role.
I could go so many ways with the counter argument. I could explain African Diaspora and how many Puerto Ricans have black ancestry, or that her father is a black man, or the fact that what separates her from being “appropriate” for the role is a handful of tiny genes that control melanin (as there are dark skinned black/Latina girls), or even ask what “Caucasian” features are, but that wouldn’t hit the root of my point.
Critics proposed the role be given to Viola Davis, India Arie or actress Kimberly Elise. However, Arie, though a talented singer, is not an actress. Davis or Elise could have been good alternatives. But there is a reason director Cynthia Mort chose Saldana, and it wasn’t based upon complexion.
In truth, singer Mary J Blige, who is of darker shade, was originally intended for the role but turned it down. Zoe Saldana, a longtime Nina fan, jumped at the opportunity.
In a September interview, Mort told the New York Times the movie was not intended to be a biography in the strict sense, but instead “a love story about an artist’s journey unto herself.”
“There’s a difference between telling a story that includes and involves emotion and experiences and doing a biopic — she was born here, she did this, she did that… That’s not what we’re telling in that kind of linear fashion.”
A big part of Nina Simone’s identity was tied in with the fact that she was a darker black woman in the public eye, and during the 1950’s and 60’s no less. She worked to challenge racial stereotypes of black women in the media, which is made clear by her famous protest song “Four Women.”
Four women of different color, with different stories, but all black and misunderstood. Not “one woman” who looked just like her. Unlike these critics, Simone understood the black experience was different for everyone and didn’t belittle the struggle of lighter skinned women while explaining her own.
To say Saldana doesn’t deserve the role is to suggest that she is inherently unworthy and incapable of comprehending a black woman’s struggle and portraying it on film. It is wrong.
However, I do understand where the issues with this come from. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen a dark brown female in a lead, or supporting role on a hit TV show or movie. Tara from True Blood comes to mind. Colorism exists. The notion that light-skinned black women are easier to handle in dominant culture is still a prevalent idea for some.
Even so, the solution isn’t bashing a movie that has yet to be made, or questioning the “blackness” of a talented actress; it lies in striving to diversify the entertainment industry itself as a whole. According to the Director’s Guild of America, Caucasian directors were responsible for 88 percent of the 2,600 television episodes produced last year. This is problematic. There should be fervor in us all to have more people of African descent, not only on screen but also behind the scenes.
Through it all, it seems, Saldana’s determination to complete the film has not wavered.
“She did do her own singing,” according to co-star David Oyelowo on E-online. “I was blown away.”
“The reality is what keeps me focused, and what kept me from getting stressed or being hurt… I’m doing it for my sisters, I’m doing it for my brothers and I don’t care who tells me that I am not this and [that],” said Saldana. “I know who I am and I know what Nina Simone means to me, so that is my truth and that is what set me free.”
Much like Simone, Saldana will be fighting public criticism when Nina releases later this year.