Not unlike the gold standard of yesteryear, in an industry filled to the brim with Tessa Thompsons and Zendayas, it’s clear that lighter skin and european features are still what is considered more marketable to a wider audience. But what happens when casting needs calls for a darker skinned woman with traditional black features? Enter this month’s upcoming biopic of Nina Simone titled “Nina” starring Zoe Saldana.
Although undeniably talented, she bares absolutely zero resemblance to the late singer. One has to wonder, How did Saldana procure this role in the first place? Why did she accept it when she KNEW she was not the right actress for the role?
I do not hold Saldana one hundred percent responsible, though upon being made aware that donning blackface would be a necessity to look more like the title character, flags should have been raised. What makes the situation even more peculiar is that when it comes to social issues, and inequality as it pertains to women, she seems to be fully aware of the challenges that women face in Hollywood. What Miss Saldana fails to realize, is that when conversation is had about women in Hollywood, the discussion only really pertains to white women; intersectionality being an added layer to an already complex issue that seemingly no one outside of those affected wants to acknowledge. With this lack of acknowledgement she ends up unknowingly becoming a party to a system that upholds white as the ideal. A system that somehow cannot differentiate between the many groups within the african diaspora and cast accordingly.
What I would like Miss Saldana to understand is that men are not the only individuals who posses privilege over others in this world. I want her to understand, discussions that the public is willing to have regarding women’s inequality is by and large a discussion that is centered around whiteness and — whether intentional or not — is not meant to include you and the unique issues that you may face as a woman of color. She must understand that her celebrity causes her to be subject to the gaze of whites. Talent and work ethic aside, her marketability to the masses — mostly comprised of white people — plays a role in her success. She should be aware that with this perceived marketability, she holds an advantage over darker women. She holds an advantage over heavier women. She holds an advantage over women that choose to wear their hair kinky as well as women who’s beauty is perceived as unconventional because they do not possess european facial features.
Issues within our society, be it classism, racism, or sexism, often is reflected in our art. While it’s important that our stories are told, we need to be mindful of who we allow to tell them. Given the flagrant disregard of what it means to cast a fair skinned afro-latina woman, I think it’s safe to assume that no black people were allowed any meaningful input prior or during the making of this film. This is a problem. In an attempt to tell a story while hyper focused on a timeline, cultural context — past and present — is overlooked; reducing a beloved musical icon to a mere caricature, a woman with an unparalleled musical aptitude and unexplained eccentricity.
We often associate Nina Simone with the tortured musical geniuses of our time along with Billie Holiday, Donny Hathaway; With a background as a classical pianist and a truly one of a kind baritone voice that bellowed from the very depths of her soul leaving audiences in awe for generations to come.
Simone grew up in Jim Crow south, eventually blossoming as an artist during a time where black people were visible, but only for the purpose of entertaining white audiences. Those who were deemed worthy of the kind of stardom and recognition Simone received, were given the opportunity based on the comfort level of whites. The more racially ambiguous the performer, the more well received by the general public they would be. Proximity to whiteness — european features and fairer skin — was of utmost importance; Think Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge.
We can only guess that this film was green lit for the sole purpose of possible Oscar nods. Simone’s life story, in this medium easily falls into a certain archetype — the exceptional yet complicated negro — that the mostly white mostly male Academy eats up. Every time award season rolls around, often we see the same white faces receiving accolades for a job well done, while POC are left having to rely on problematic supporting roles, with little to no acknowledgement.
All we can do is hope that recent pressure from the public won’t compel the academy to attempt to pacify us by showering this film with undeserved adulation.
Image Credit: http://www.time.com