What Everyone Missed About Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone

FILE PHOTO:  Actress Zoe Saldana To Play Nina Simone In Biopic Role
Nina SIMONE; (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns) Actress Zoe Saldana (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Relativity Media)

With the pending release of Nina, noted intellectuals, journalists and storytellers are weighing in on the film’s casting of Zoe Saldana, a black Latina, as Nina Simone. The arguments center on colorism, erasure, appropriation and lackluster storytelling, but no time has been given to understanding Saldana’s perspective and experience as a woman of color. This understanding will not explain Saldana’s decision to take this role or our limitations in accepting her in the role, but it is important that we explore this complicated landscape.

Who Was Nina Simone?

For an entire generation, the Nina Simone controversy is bewildering. They do not know who she was, what she did or why she is important. They don’t understand her difficult life or why a film’s casting is the source of such animus. A brilliantly written, performed and marketed film would solve this much like Taylor Hackford’s 2004 Ray did for legendary soul musician Ray Charles.

Eunice Kathleen Waymon (21 February 1933 – 21 April 2003), better known as Nina Simone was a classically trained pianist whose music echoed the struggles and aspirations of African Americans who were tired of the limitations and violence they experienced. She was a fierce civil rights activist whose unique voice gave us iconic revolutionary songs!

Ms. Simone fought the erasure of dark-skinned women by embracing Negritude. She became militantly Afrocentric in songs like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” an anthem of the ’60s-era black pride movement, and “Mississippi Goddam,” written after the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four black girls. She confronted the perversity of colorism directly in the famous ballad “Four Women,” in which she sang in the voices of black women whose fates were tied to their differing skin tones. Brent Staples NYT Editorial Hollywood’s Fake Version of Nina Simone 

Simone’s life was marred by the difficulties she bore as an African American and a woman of dark skin, full lips, tightly coiled hair and round hips. Simone’s work and activism was a clear extension of her experiences and pain as a black woman in America.

Simone was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about black women who looked like her. And for that she enjoyed a special place in the pantheon of resistance…We look at Nina Simone’s face and the lie is exposed and we are shamed. We look at Nina Simone’s face and a terrible truth comes into view—there was nothing wrong with her. But there is something deeply wrong with us. Ta-nehisi Coates —Nina Simone’s Face

To really understand Simone, listen to her, hear her pain and gifts in her tone and phrasing, read Ta-nehisi Coates’ Nina Simone’s Face. He is insightful if not, revelatory, especially for those of privilege who have not had to contend with racism, colorism and erasure. He writes clearly of simple truths, of what it means to be black and female in America and the black community. To be a dark-skinned black woman with an atypical body in America is to walk with a heavy burden, the infamous three strikes. Coates acknowledges this, as well as his limitations in fully understanding this burden as a black man. He concludes that the film’s casting of Saldana signals the very thing Simone fought, wrote and brilliantly sung about throughout her troubled career.

The casting of a woman who is not perceived as black or sharing the same struggles as Simone has caused many to revolt. Indeed after viewing the film’s trailer, I too was taken back at the unconvincing make-up and prosthetic used. Many actors, singers, writers, filmmakers and fans have supported the family’s displeasure not only with Saldana as lead, but the film’s focus on the artist’s later years filled with mental illness, homelessness and weight gain. Director Cynthia Mort’s Nina may erase Simone two times over. In neglecting to understand and showcase who Simone was and then focusing on her decline in the film is to erase her history, accomplishments. Jeff L. Lieberman, director of documentary The Amazing Nina Simone,  said, “To overlook this is not only an insult to Ms. Simone’s very rich and complex life, but a blatant white-washing of her achievements as a black woman in 20th century America.”

We are being told that Nina Simone’s face bears no real import on the new eponymous movie about her life, starring Zoe Saldana…This is obviously false. Saldana could be the greatest thespian of her time, but no one would consider casting her as Marilyn Monroe…They did it [cast Saldana] because they wanted to use the aura of blackness while evading the social realities of blackness. It’s possible that the producers were not, themselves, personally racist. This has no bearing whatsoever on anything. In America, racism is a default setting. To do nothing, to go along with the market, to claim innocence or neutrality, is to inevitably be a cog in the machine of racist hierarchy. The producers of Nina are the heirs of this history—not personal racists, but cogs…No one on the team seems to understand the absurdity at hand—making a movie about Nina Simone while operating within the very same machinery that caused Simone so much agony in the first place. –Ta-nehisi Coates Nina Simone’s Face

Does Saldana Need a Defense?

It is surprising that the outrage on twitter and in the media has focused on Saldana and not on the development team, including David Oyelowo, who pushed forward with a script many rejected. Saldana has shared that she did not think she was right for the role and she declined it initially as did several other actors. Ultimately she accepted because Simone deserved for her story to be told. Saldana is not African-America, she’s Dominican and Puerto Rican; she is light-skinned, slim, pretty by European standards and not known for her ability to carry a tune. This is not the description of an actress primed to portray Simone. Though successful, Saldana’s resume does not indicate the range and depth that the role of Simone would require. Saldana has succeeded in Hollywood but she would not have been on my shortlist for this role. Proven gifted performers like Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba and especially Audry McDonalds could do really wonderful things with this role; they were not afforded the opportunity or chose not to pursue it.

Most critical of the casting has been careful not to hurl inflammatory or incendiary insults at Saldana. She maybe hurt by the outrage, but it has not been particularly venomous toward her. However, no one has acknowledged or unpacked how Saldana’s experience as a woman of color maybe similar to Simone’s. Saldana has said that she identifies with Simone. While Saldana’s physique is more Hollywood, her features are not unlike Simone’s.  Growing-up in Queens, NY she may have identified with her community. In the black community black Latinos like Saldana are sought after if not pedestalized and fetishized. With hair that is more European than African and light skin, her image was one of privilege not burden in the black community. Inside her Latin communities, this would not have been the case. In my experience as a Brooklyn resident of Central American heritage, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and particularly Cubans, adhere to and suffer the same colorism that African Americans do. They often call black people negro with a distain that only slave holders and racists and can muster. I can vividly recall a Puerto Rican classmate who would not play in the sun because she was already the darkest member of her family. So though Saldana does not need a defense, we should all try to understand her experience.

“The reality is what keeps me focused and what kept me from I guess getting stressed or being hurt by the comments is that I’m doing it for my sisters,” she said. “I’m doing it for my brothers. I don’t care who tells me that I am not this and I am not that. I know who I am and I know what Nina Simone means to me. So that is my truth and that set me free.“ Zoe Saldana quote

No doubt, when Saldana joined the acting community and moved to Hollywood, her experience was different than in New York or with her Latin communities. In this privileged community she is labeled exotic, mulatto, other. She is cast in films that would not even consider African American actresses. Her skin is dark, but she is not black. She is appealing to many audiences. Her presence in films assuages guilt and racism charges. For many in Hollywood she is just black enough, but has the black audience truly embraced her? If they had, would the controversy been the same?

It is clear that the only ones looking forward to Saldana’s performance is the film’s development team, which lacked POC, and Studio Owner Robert Johnson. They illustrated their lack of respect for Simone and the culture with the release of this seriously flawed project. They underestimated if not ignored who Simone was, her importance to the culture and the temperature of the racially charged time they are releasing the film. I’ll hold my judgement until I view the film, but even at this juncture it is clear that Nina and the controversy surrounding it does little to highlight the woman’s brilliance, fight and struggle. The noise itself is an erasure of Simone’s message and brilliance; this is what saddens me the most. For those of us looking for more on the incomparable Nina Simone, we will have to wait a little longer for a film to bring us a glimpse of the complicated life and struggles of Jazz legend Nina Simone.


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