A movie about the life of African American singer-songwriter Nina Simone is coming under fire in recent weeks. Producers for the forthcoming biopic Nina, announced this week that Zoe Saldana would play the title role. Zoe Saldana, 34, got the role after Mary J. Blige, who’s been attached to the film for years, announced that she was no longer involved in the project. The movie is based on Nina’s 1992 autobiography I Put a Spell on You.
Nina Simone is known as the “High Priestess of Soul”. She is a legend in the world of music and was actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement on the 1960s. She was born in 1933 in North Carolina. Her music spanned decades and has been sampled and re-made by many of today’s artists. She did not experience an enormous amount of commercial success but her life and music have her holding an iconic status among many. Simone died in France in 2003.
After news broke that Saldana was taking on the role, petitions began to circulate online. Petitioners are accusing producers of everything from trying to “whitewash” the film by casting an attractive lighter complexioned woman to play Simone, to outright racism. This is not a new argument. The media has always shown a preference for casting lighter actresses, even when playing human beings who we know were darker. Recently, the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter cast a light complexioned actress to play the famous slave Harriet Tubman.
Many have made the point that there are several brilliant actresses who would fit the aesthetic of Nina Simone in a better way. Talented dark complexioned women have notoriously had a difficult time in Hollywood, despite the limited gains they have made over the years. By mostly casting light complexioned women in lead roles, the entertainment industry has had influence over the standards of beauty in the African American community. The Black community could use better representation of the spectrum and diversity within.
On the other side of the argument, many say, who are we to say that Zoe Saldana is not Black enough to play a Black lead role? Saldana is an Afro-Latina. She acknowledges her Latin blood but also her African ancestry is apparent. She is a Black woman. Her skin color and Latin heritage do not diminish that. She is a talented actress and there could be many reasons she was chosen for the role that may not have to do with race.
Both sides of the argument make legitimate points. This one thing is sure; this conversation will happen again until the media become more sensitive to the diversity in the Black community and represent that diversity on screen. Zoe is a beautiful actress and captivating onscreen. On the surface, she does seem miscast for the role, but let’s be fair to her as an artist and individual. Let’s let her talent speak for itself.