When the trailer for Nina was initially released, criticism was harsh and Zoe Saldana, the face of the ill-fated biopic, was heavily dragged through the mud for donning what looks like the equivalent of blackface to portray Nina Simone. In recent days, however, a number of individuals have come forward to defend Zoe’s participation in the Bob Johnson-produced picture, the most surprising of which is Nina Simone’s own daughter who told TIME magazine, “It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture. It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”
Queen Latifah seemed to lack any understanding of Hollywood colorism when she told the Hollywood Reporter, “I think Zoe Saldana is a great actress, so I am looking forward to [Nina]. She is of African descent – I don’t see why she shouldn’t play the role. I just want to see it. Get rid of the hype and let’s go watch a movie.” And Paula Patton echoed that sentiment when she said, “Clearly, someone thought [Zoe] was perfect for it – she’s an amazing actress, she’s beautiful – and you haven’t even given her a chance and you haven’t seen it yet. I think we have to be in a place where we celebrate each other and are kind to one another, and say, ‘There’s alternate versions of a story. Give her a shot, try to enjoy it and stop judging.’”
If only Paula understood there’s a stark contrast between alternate versions of a fictional story and alternating reality when it comes to relaying the legacy of someone’s life before audiences who may or may not be familiar enough with the subject to differentiate the two. In short, by casting someone whose features don’t resemble that of the person who’s physical appearance was as much a part of her fame as was her vocal ability, Hollywood is erasing the very essence of who Nina Simone was and why her story is one deserving of being told on the big screen, and these defenses don’t help. Further, Hollywood execs are upholding the standard that doctoring up a lighter brown skinned woman with poorly chosen makeup and prosthetics is a better alternative than casting a dark-skinned actress who would have brought more authenticity to the role.
Lisa Simone Kelly is right in pointing out that Zoe Saldana is part of a larger picture, the thing is she needs to be held responsible for the role she’s playing in perpetuating the cycle of African American stories being watered down and altered by Hollywood to appeal to the masses they assume wouldn’t receive the content otherwise. Part of me feels right around the time Zoe got the call about this project or her manager presented the opportunity to her she should’ve said no, but I understand acting checks can be few and far between and I can’t imagine many actresses saying “no, you should give this role to Uzo Aduba or India Arie or Viola Davis instead.” Plus as a black woman, which Zoe is, maybe she really did want to tell Nina’s story. However, somewhere between accepting the role and her second day in the makeup chair– just in case she thought the terrible first attempt at darkening her skin and broadening her features was a fluke — she should’ve backed out and said this isn’t right.
The issue here isn’t solely physical representation, though that is a good part of the angst many of us feel when we look at the ghastly images of Zoe in costume. The bigger problem is the alternate version of Nina Simone’s life story that Hollywood wants to tell — and which Paula Patton is keen of — isn’t based in much reality at all, from the look of Zoe Saldana, to her voice, to the fake storyline crafted to sell movie tickets. Even if Zoe thought her acting would be superior enough to overshadow her appearance — because I don’t expect her to fully understand the plight of a dark-skinned, African-featured actress in Hollywood — she should have at least had enough respect for Nina Simone and her family to back out of a project that made a choice to make up details of Nina’s life rather than honor who she really was.
Every day we hear of actors backing out of roles over “creative differences” for films that aren’t nearly half as important as this one and you mean to tell me Zoe saw this all the way through, even with the obvious issues simply because she believed Nina’s story needed to be told? Sorry to break it to you, but just because Nina will be in theaters in a month doesn’t mean Nina Simone’s story is being told. As an actress, you don’t have control over every piece of the film-making process, but you certainly have the right to say you won’t be made into a caricature or make one out of a real human being who was a true activist and fought for her own representation while living, only for the fight to continue after death. That, in my opinion, doesn’t get a pass. But what Zoe’s implicitness in this project does do is give Hollywood a pass to continue overlooking better suited actresses for roles simply because of their skin color because as far as they’re concerned they can always find someone else to do it. And in this case, Zoe Saldana, sadly, was that someone else.