I just read on Facebook a few minutes ago a post that begged the question why so many black people are up in arms about Zoe Saldana playing the legendary Nina Simone in the new biopic “Nina” for which the trailer was released last week.
The writer of the post wanted to know, specifically, why these black people were singling out Saldana and attacking her so viciously rather than taking up their issues with the politics, casting, and artistic quality of the film with the director, say, or casting director or executive producers, all of whom appear to be white with the exception of David Oyelowo and Algerim Jakisheva.
The answer, as I see it, is simple and complicated.
Yes, Saldana’s decision to take the part can be viewed as overly ambitious. Her appearance in the movie can be blamed on a “bad make-up job.” Her acting can be chalked up as plain old bad acting.
Or her decision to take the part can be viewed as contemptuous of Nina Simone’s legacy and Saldana’s darker contemporaries. Women like Adepero Aduye, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Tika Sumpter, and even Lauryn Hill.
These women could’ve played Simone without “blacking up,” which is still problematic even when the person doing it is black (19th century minstrel shows featuring black actors in blackface were just as buffoonish and degrading as minstrel shows featuring white actors in blackface).
Hill might even have been able to sing the songs and eliminate the need for lip-synching.
Nyong’o could’ve brought her academically-trained acting chops and legitimacy as an Oscar winner to the project.
This is what the people heaping disgust onto Saldana apparently feel Simone deserved, if her story was going to be told in film. Casting that allowed her to be portrayed in a much more dignified manner.
I think that these people going after Saldana feel that she should’ve felt the same way–that Simone deserved the best in terms of a story, a script, and a cinematic portrayal.
I think they feel that Saldana put her need to do the role before the existential need for a biography that respects Simone, and doing so was disrespectful.
They feel that she ignored the demands of history and community, and she did so out of entitlement.
That she decided for the black community how Simone would be portrayed in the film because somehow she felt she knew better than the black community how Simone should be portrayed.
I think it’s difficult, too, for her detractors to look at Zoe Saldana–a lighter-skinned Afro-Latino–and not believe that she went ahead and played Simone–wore the make-up and argued vehemently against the early criticism that her casting received–because she doesn’t really appreciate how difficult it is to be a dark-skinned black woman in America.
She doesn’t sympathize with the actresses I named above and how difficult it is for them to find quality roles or important projects in which they can star.
She doesn’t sympathize with the scores of dark-skinned women that idolize Simone and want to see her depicted not just accurately but beautifully on the screen, so they might feel validated. So they may feel venerated.
She doesn’t sympathize with the ways that colorism makes dark-skinned women feel self-conscious about their looks and how that ungodly make-up job plays right into the stereotype of darker as uglier.
This is politically incorrect, but I also think that black people took issue with Saldana’s decision to play Simone against the wishes of Simone’s own family and a large segment of the black community because Saldana is Dominican and Puerto Rican–she is Latino.
When she decided to play the role, it probably seemed to some like she was acting as an outsider–because an insider–someone that understood what Simone means to the black American community–wouldn’t want to play the role amidst the sort of controversy that surrounded Saldana’s casting.
An insider would care about what the family and community wanted.
These critics probably felt, too, that a role as potentially valuable as Nina Simone should only go to an insider.
That giving it to somebody that doesn’t embrace the black community–belonging to it–the way that Simone did–was blasphemous.
Ultimately, of course, the hostility being directed at Saldana came and comes from the realization of what an excellent opportunity making a film about the life of Nina Simone is. And how tragically it was wasted by the white people that created the film.
The reason the hostility is being directed at Saldana, though, and not the white director or producers is because black people expect white people to be obtuse when it comes to making black art.
We expect black people to know better and do better.
Saldana gave several interviews when the news of this film broke last year in which she proclaimed that she is a black woman, and she has been inspired by Nina Simone, and she believes that Nina Simone’s story is an important one to tell.
I think black fans of Simone felt that since she is black and does understand how important Nina Simone is, then she should’ve sacrificed her ego or checked her infatuation and done what was best for the project. For Simone. Simone’s legacy. Not herself.
These fans of Simone wanted a tribute for their hero that wasn’t mired in the same convoluted color politics that held her down and back when she was alive.
And I get it.
Hollywood will make biopics about white women that make mops but won’t bother with stories about the amazing black women that have actually contributed to the culture.
Finally, someone thought to make a movie about one of our most loved and esteemed musicians. But then–shit. They botched it. They made it a fucking minstrel show.
I don’t know that I necessarily fault Saldana for taking the role, but I really wish that she had opted gracefully out of the movie when she got those first inklings of what it was compared to what it should’ve been.
I wish that she’d seen the forest and not just the opportunity to climb the tree.