Typically, when we hear of actors wearing wigs, fake teeth, prosthetic noses, and makeup that changes the color of their skin, outrageous characters such as werewolves, aliens, and witches come to mind.
But in late 2012, fans across the country were disappointed to know that Zoe Saldana would require these cosmetic contrivances in order to effectively portray — not a being from another planet — but a fellow Black woman: the late, great Nina Simone.
A wave of backlash (and a Change.com petition) soon followed, with many critics going so far as to say Saldana was wearing blackface for the role. As four years of production and time wore on, opinions about the controversial movie began to settle themselves in the back of the minds of their beholders.
That was until early March of this year when an official trailer for the film was released and viewers were able to preview Saldana in all her caked-on glory. Once again, outrage surrounding the film was ignited and epitomized when Ms. Simone’s own estate asked that the actress, “please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”
.@zoesaldana Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.
— Nina Simone (@NinaSimoneMusic) March 3, 2016
Many are still questioning whether or not the sharp criticism the actress is facing is necessary, and unfortunately for some of those inquisitors the answer is yes. Choosing a light-skinned actress without hair as kinky, skin as dark, lips as full or a nose as wide as The High Priestess of Soul’s sends people the message that dark-skinned women are disposable, so much so that they are not even needed in the production of a film about one of them and her struggle.
While Zoe Saldana is not the problem, her being casted to play Simone is symptomatic of a much larger ailment that plagues the entertainment industry: the skin-tone hierarchy that is born from systemic racism.
Turn on your television. Flip through a few channels if you have to. Most of the black women you see will have light skin. If you see a black, heterosexual couple it is more than likely that the man will have darker skin than his female counterpart. If you see a Black, female love interest, she is almost guaranteed to be light-skinned.
From a disgusting Straight Outta Compton casting call that associates darker women with being “poor” and “not in good shape” to entire films featuring almost entirely black casts and still no dark skinned girls, it is blatantly clear that dark-skinned girls are either not getting the roles they deserve or being completely ignored by Hollywood.
Dope, a movie with a predominantly black cast, features only light-skinned black women in the film.
For dark-skinned girls, this rampant colorism is nothing short of painful to see. They are forced to flock to few big figures besides Lupita and Viola for representation on the big screen, and almost no one when searching for someone around their own age. Eventually many of them come to the conclusion that they are not beautiful enough to be on television, that they are not talented enough to be on film, and that they are not worthy of the public’s gaze.
According to CNN, in 2013 Saldana said in reference to race, “I’m not going to talk about it. Yeah, it’s an elephant. We all see it, we all know it, but I’m not going to carry it in my heart, because I want to be a person that embodies change. Not embodies war or battles or bitterness; I want to keep moving on.” The thing about colorblindness though, is that when you refuse to see, certain things are bound to fall through the cracks.
As an activist and an artist Simone herself was no stranger to race. In fact, much of the discrimination Simone faced was not only due to her race, but the fact that she was dark-skinned with distinctly African features (and was proud of them). The icon’s repertoire is composed of droves of songs that speak explicitly about race.
It does not seem very likely that Saldana will be able to do justice to any of these facets of the songstresses legacy if she refuses to even mention race. Zoe Saldana’s decision to portray Nina Simone shows how “not seeing color” can have very real and tragic consequences as she is censoring a large part of what made Nina Simone, Nina Simone.
“There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses, and Nina, in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that, ” Simone Kelly, Simone’s daughter, told Rolling Stone magazine.
Kelly also defended the harsh criticism Saldana has faced, as she certainly was not the only one involved in the making of the film. In fact, out of the entire team of producers, writers, prosthetics and makeup artists, and casting director, no one thought that the casting choice was outrageous enough to speak out about it. This is why Zoe Saldana is not the problem.
The fault partially falls at the feet of those behind the camera as they continue to vouch for Saldana and defend their decision. The film’s distributor and ironically founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), Robert Johnson said of the disapproval the film is facing, “The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.”
The production team behind Nina is so lacking in diversity that no one recognized the impact this casting gaffe would have. No one recognized the social impact of darkening the skin of an actress rather than casting an actual dark-skinned actress to play a dark-skinned character. This speaks to the larger issue of the lack of representation people of color face in Hollywood face, both behind and in front of the camera.
Racism in America will persist regardless of whether or not the cast and crew of Nina decide to talk about it. Alluding back to Viola Davis (a prominent dark-skinned actress who also would have been a much wiser choice for the role) the actress said in an interview with The Wrap, “when you do see a woman of color on screen, the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. “ If Davis is right, then this movie is very much like a punching bag.
Nina hits theatres on April 22.
Alimah Dawkins is a senior at South Atlanta High School.