Zoe Saldana Wasn’t the Right Pick to Play Nina Simone. Period.

by Evan Seymour Let me start off by saying this – I absolutely adore Zoe Saldana. She’s one of t...

 photo zoesaldana_ninasimone.jpg
by Evan Seymour

Let me start off by saying this – I absolutely adore Zoe Saldana. She’s one of the hottest stars in Hollywood and sistah girl’s sense of style is absolutely fierce. I am for sure a Zoe fan. However, what I do not, not even one bit, appreciate is the casting of the actress as legendary jazz, soul, and folk singer Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic.

The controversy surrounding the film is not new, but Saldana’s comments during several recent interviews have me all fired up again about her selection for the part.

During an interview for the June issue of Allure magazine, Zoe Saldana made this statement:

“…to be an American or black or Latina, it's arbitrary compared to our battles as women.”

The struggles of African-Americans are “arbitrary”? Really? First of all, this is a statement which Nina Simone would have completely disagreed with; and secondly, why does Saldana feel the need to categorize struggle in some sort of hierarchy?

In another recent interview, the starlet spoke with BET as part of the publicity circuit for her latest film, Star Trek Into Darkness, which opens in theaters this Friday. In addition to talking about Star Trek, Saldana answered questions about race and the hoopla surrounding her portrayal of Simone.

Here’s an excerpt of what Zoe had to say about race:

I find it uncomfortable to have to speak about my identity all of the time, when in reality it’s not something that drives me or wakes me up out of bed every day. I didn’t grow up in a household where I was categorized by my mother. I was just Zoe and I could have and be anything that I ever wanted to do…and every human being is the same as you. So to all of a sudden leave your household and have people always ask you, “What are you? What are you?” is the most uncomfortable question and it’s literally the most repetitive question. I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they contribute as individuals and not what they look like.

Now, one might argue that Saldana’s comments are an indicator of how far our world has come in terms of ideas around race and identity, but really, her sentiments just make her seem naïve and idealistic. It is understandable that Saldana tires of questions surrounding her identity, and yes, she should be able to be judged based upon merit and merit alone. That, however, is not reality – especially for black folks. And I, as an African American female, understand that having my identity questioned is going to be a part of my experience, whether I want it to be or not.

Saldana says her identity is not something that drives her or wakes her up out of bed. Once again, I must part with Saldana on this point. My identity is inextricably a part of who I am. I must answer questions about my identity on a daily basis. More often than not, those questions do not come directly, but in the form of sideways glances, preconceived notions and misconceptions, closed doors and glass ceilings, and benign, but stinging slips of the tongue made out of ignorance by my non-African-American counterparts. This is just part of what it means to be black in America. Though it is heavy at times, it is not a burden. I love being a black woman.

But enough about me.

Nina Simone, the singer Saldana is portraying, was a passionate voice in the battle for equality during the Civil Rights Movement. Simone penned songs including “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”, “Backlash Blues”, Four Women”, and “Why (The Love of King is Dead)”, a song she wrote in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Simone was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement who was vocal about the struggles associated with her blackness and her womanhood.

In the acknowledgements section of her 1993 book ,I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography Of Nina Simone, Simone salutes the work of such people as Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou and Alex Haley. She spends a good deal of time in the book detailing her experiences as an African American, and her work in the Civil Rights Movement. Nothing of what we know of Simone suggests she would have been a proponent of blackface.

You can hear Simone talking in her own words about the importance of fighting for the rights of African Americans. Saldana is annoyed by questions regarding her identity, but Simone, who’s mahogany skin and wide nose made her identity unmistakable, fielded such questionscourageously.

In order to highlight the naivety of Saldana’s statement, I want to take a moment to focus in on the last sentence of the BET interview excerpt I previously cited --
I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they contribute as individuals and not what they look like.
We do not, nor will we ever, live in a post-racial society, and all of the “isms” are alive and well – colorism included. And let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that one day the world does take a giant leap towards Utopianism and reach a state of post-racial identity – one’s phenotype will still be used as a filter through which people see each other. That’s just human nature. Saldana, who is considered one of the sexiest actresses in Hollywood, should understand that better than anyone. Also, just because people are not judged based upon what they look like does not mean that difference should not be acknowledged, and really, celebrated. And here’s my last point on this matter – If Saldana believes that people should not be judged based upon what they look like, then why did she deem it necessary to darken her skin and widen her nose in order to capture the essence of Nina Simone?

Saldana is not the first black actor to portray someone of a different complexion in a biopic. In the classic Spike Lee film X, Denzel Washington plays activist Malcolm X, who was of a much lighter complexion, without lightening his skin. Despite the difference in pigmentation, Washington was still believable in the role. Why? Because people were able to look past the differences in the men’s complexions based upon Washington’s high-caliber performance.

More recently, actress and comedian Maya Rudolph portrayed Michelle Obama repeatedly on Saturday Night Live. Never did the light-complexioned actress, who is the biracial daughter of late singer Minnie Riperton, don make-up to darken her skin to look more like the First Lady. Rudolph has also impersonated poet Maya Angelou, and probably most famously, the late Whitney Houston. All of these performances were done without make-up to darken Rudolph’s skin. The writers at SNL and Rudolph understood that to put the comedian in blackface would be offensive, and would no doubt cause a backlash from the public. Why couldn’t Saldana and the makers of the new Nina Simone biopic understand this concept as well?

For me, this dialogue is about more than whether or not Zoe is “dark enough”, or “black enough” to play Nina Simone. If Saldana looked like the late, great Celia Cruz, I don’t think there would be an issue. The more pressing issue is the use of – well, essentially blackface – to get Saldana to more closely resemble Simone.

This excerpt from a statement released by India.Arie pretty much says it all:

Yes there should be a movie made, and YES they should have chosen someone who LOOKS like Nina Simone, ESPECIALLY since her RACE played such a PIVOTAL role in WHO, WHAT, and WHY, she was.

THAT ASIDE for a second, this just looks WEIRD, it looks like a person in Black(er) face with a fake nose…REALLY?!!!


Well said, India.Arie!

In case I haven’t made my opinion clear – blackface is offensive and should never be used. I don’t give a damn if you’re black or not. I don’t care if you’re a celebrity or not. No blackface. Especially not in a film about a real-life person who fought for racial equality and justice. Blackface is a hurtful reminder of minstrel shows and the bitter racial history of our nation. It does not belong in the portrayal of a person who is no longer with us to say whether or not she supports the use of skin darkening agents and prosthetics to try and capture her likeness. Why not instead, cast an actress like, say, Viola Davis? Or India.Arie, who has been for years asked about playing Simone. It was a bad decision morally, and it was a bad artistic decision because let’s face it, Saldana looks ridiculous, and the make-up is distracting.

Saldana told BET she “most closely identifies with” the black community, so she should understand why so many of us are upset. Shame on Saldana, and shame on the filmmakers. This is one movie I will definitely not be going to support.

Read an open letter in protest of the film written by the creator of the official Nina Simone website.


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

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