An Open Letter To Zoe Saldana: On The Hollywood Machine and Artist Responsibility

Dear Zoe,

Before I begin, please know that the majority of my disgust is reserved for Cynthia Mort and Jimmy Iovine. They hold primary responsibility for your casting in the upcoming film "Nina," and that choice symbolizes the utter disregard the film industry has shown for telling the stories of Black women faithfully.

But you're a grown woman, Zoe, and you made the decision to participate in this film despite public objections from Nina's daughter Simone. Of course you owe nothing to me or the thousands of other people of African descent who find your choice to portray Nina disturbing and offensive.

I do wonder how it must feel to research Nina - to read and watch her critiques of racism and white supremacy in American culture - while preparing for a project that reinforces those very things. Quite simply Cynthia Mort, Jimmy Iovine, and yes, you, are not tributing Nina Simone's legacy. You're disrespecting it.

I know enough about the history of Black performance in America to understand that it's not as easy as "just say no" for Black artists. Zoe, I realize that artists, particularly Women of Color artists, must sometimes be opportunists to survive. But artists must also assume culpability for the work they produce, and this work is damaging.

I'm afraid you lack self-awareness. And in truth, feigning ignorance of colorism doesn't help your case.   I still can't believe you retweeted this.

Perhaps you're just trying to hold on to whatever you can to justify your decision, but no, Zoe, this is not reverse racism. Reverse racism doesn't exist. Black women are not discriminating against you because you are a light-skinned woman. We are expressing our frustration at a racial hierarchy that renders us too unattractive even to represent ourselves. And if we're being honest, you got this role, in part, because of the privilege you've been accorded as a light-skinned Afro-Latina.

That's not to say I don't think you're a talented actress. You most certainly are. In fact, I think you could surprise us with your performance in the film. That doesn't change the fact that you are contributing to the ongoing invisibility of women who cannot remove their deep brown complexions, broad noses, and kinky hair every day after work. This project is a testament to the unconscionable arrogance of white supremacy. By taking part, you've condoned that arrogance.

But ultimately, Zoe, you're just a single actress. Despite your privilege, you're working within a system that exploits you and your image without acknowledging your existence. As the face of a project with many collaborators, you've unfairly become the fall girl. I'm not mad at you. I don't think any of us are. Frankly, I feel more pity than contempt. It's the same way I feel toward minstrel performers who donned black face at the turn of the century or black women actresses who embodied steretypical mammies 60 years ago. Artists do the best with the opportunities they are given.

Few dark-skinned actresses in Hollywood could open a film. That's not your fault. However, in the future, I would caution you from making statements like, "..why the f— would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for Black women in Hollywood when there’s a Black president in my country?” Because even in the United States where Barack Obama is the president, dark skin, kinky hair and African features are still loathed.

I offer this critique in love. I can't say that I hope your movie will be a success; however, I do hope that you will use your growing influence to speak up when confronted with obvious inequality in the future. You don't owe that to us. You owe it to yourself.

Kimberly Foster

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or Tweet her.

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