Familiar wounds re-emerged when news spread that black Latina actress Zoe Saldana will portray African American musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone in a biopic.
For many, the travesty lies in the film’s production without her family’s consent or input. Scores of fans expressed discontentment with writer and director Cynthia Mort and executive producer Jimmy Iovine. Generally, family issues are touchy, but especially in black communities. It doesn’t often get more sacred than one’s mother.
In an interview for Ebony magazine, Simone, Nina Simone’s daughter asked, “How does someone just decide to do a story about someone and completely bypass family? Completely bypass her representatives?”
Others are enraged that a darker skinned, broader featured black actress was not chosen to portray Simone, whose aesthetic informed her artistry.
Familiar discussions follow. The media profits from white-washed sensationalized tales geared toward getting viewers in movie theatre seats, not reliable historicity.
But, what about Simone’s global legacy? Isn’t she revered beyond the peaks and valleys of those who descend from African and African American affirmation, resistance and pride?
The chart-topper sold more than a million records. She earned a scholarship to study at Juilliard. She wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” after NAACP activist Medgar Evers was assassinated and four African American girls were killed in a Birmingham church bombing.
She also sang about love, life, gratitude and authenticity. If those concepts are universally human, why then in the spirits of art and inclusion can’t a caramel skinned Puerto Rican/Dominican actress portray her without conjuring house versus field Negro wars?
If it were widely believed that Saldana is vapid and unable to deliver, the pain would be more comprehensible. Yet, when key black American figures are discussed, Diaspora police emerge to paperbag and phenotype test everyone whose bloodlines connect with the motherland. That’s unfair.
Certainly the darker foundation and prosthetic nose Saldana wears for the film are provocative. Possibly painful. However, at what point does the aesthetic test become a slippery slope? India Arie can be the apex of phenotypic blackness, but not Saldana?
Some responses, especially a Change.org petition backed by 10,500+ signatures, would have moviegoers believe that blue-eyed Vanessa L. Williams had been cast.
Maybe the conversation should be more nuanced than blackety-black over here and other-kind-of-black over there. And in a way, aren’t critics treating Saldana like “Aunt Sarah,” the tragic mulatto in Simone’s song “Four Women?”
In the song Simone sang, “My skin is yellow/My hair is long /Between two worlds/I do belong.” Although Saldana has spoken about dual identities, her critics haven’t fallen on deaf ears. She recently responded.
“I guess what kept me from being hurt by the negative comments was that I’m doing it for my sistas and my brothas and I don’t care who tells me I’m not this or I’m not that. I know who I am and I know what Nina Simone means to me.”
Additional issues arise—namely disproportionate access to capital and the media. “It’s one thing to criticize the white supremacist media machine that is Hollywood,” Nigerian writer Spectra wrote.
“It’s another thing entirely for us to let that criticism distract us from seeing how that machine is designed to keep us fighting each other over scraps (e.g. debating over who gets the few lead roles written for women of color) more often than we brainstorm how we can work together to grow and harvest enough seeds to keep nourishing us all.”
Saldana said her portrayal is “all out of love for my people and my pride of being a black woman and a Latina woman and an American woman and that’s my truth.”
In a film about a universally appealing African American artist, whose stage name was adapted from a white French actress, portrayal by an Afro-Latina could expand conversations about identity, belonging, place and space. It does not have to be regressive.
Besides, when the heat comes, the real remain in the kitchen. If Saldana flops, let it be from a dearth of talent and preparation, not her pigmentation.