Last night, the black interwebs let out a collective, “WTF” when several sources began reporting that Dominican beauty Zoe Saldana would be replacing Mary J. Blige in an upcoming Nina Simone biopic.
While many wondered why Saldana (or Mary J. if we’re honest) was tapped for the role considering she looks nothing like the legendary jazz singer, the fervor caused by her casting reminded me, once again, of the importance of telling our own stories.
In the past few years Hollywood has consistently gotten it wrong when it comes to telling black women’s narratives. From the questionable choice of casting Thandie Newton as an Igbo woman in the film adaptation of the novel Half of a Yellow Sun and Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela, to Jacqueline Fleming, a biracial woman, playing Harriet Tubman, when other people are in charge of portraying us, it seems like any brown face will do.
Although Saldana is a talented actress, inhabiting such a complex and iconic role as Nina Simone takes more than just talent. The actress chosen should not only be able to pull off her mannerisms, wit, and her signature spunk, but she should also look like her.
As our Nigerian sisters reminded us when they started a petition to recast Newton’s role as an Igbo woman, sometimes an actress’ color does indeed matter. If producers are going to make a film about Nina Simone—or any other iconic black woman–they need to pick someone who resembles her, not only in charisma but also in skin tone.