So, the trailer for the upcoming Nina Simone biopic was released, and the Internet has gone wild with commentary this week, most of it against lead actress Zoe Saldana.
It can’t compete with a nude Kim Kardashian West shot in terms of sheer click power, but calling Saldana’s portrayal of the late singer and Civil Rights activist blackface — which I’ve seen in multiple article titles — is noteworthy.
I object strenuously to the term blackface as a descriptor for anything to do with this film. It literally made me cringe. Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used to represent a black person, usually by someone who is not black. It’s associated with 19th century stereotypes like the “happy-go-lucky darky” or the “dandified coon.” To refer to Saldana’s portrayal of Simone this way is too much.
The beef that Saldana is too light to play Simone and another, darker skinned actress should have been chosen for the role is equally lame. Let’s think about this critically. Saldana, whose father is from the Dominican Republic, and whose mother is from Puerto Rico, is a woman of color. And her skin’s not that light. She’s what I call a comfortable shade of brown, not real light, not real dark. This is not Joseph Fiennes being cast as Michael Jackson. Now that’s wrong.
Articles pointing out all of the dark-skinned actresses who could have played the role just seem silly. Aren’t there multiple actors who are suitable for every role? And is that really the point? Is that what’s most important here, to find an exact physical replica of this iconic woman?
On the surface, this trumped up drama around Saldana taps into an old-as-dirt issue in the global community of color: the value of light vs. dark skin. Dark skin usually signals poverty, problems, being cast out or thought less of, being perceived as ugly vs. beautiful. It’s as insidious a problem as most that plague the diversity and inclusion space because most people don’t realize they have, and are making decisions based on, this often unconscious bias.
There is research documenting that it is often easier or more likely that light-skinned people of color will find jobs, keep them, be promoted and make more money than their darker-skinned peers. Ironically, this targeted emphasis on Saldana’s supposedly light skin seems to scream out that she is actually not good enough to play the darker-skinned Simone. That the makeup she wears in the film is an affront rather than a not uncommon method used to create a more accurate physical composite of a real person. And let’s not forget that almost all actors wear makeup, and many wear prosthetics to bring them closer to their real life doppelgangers.
Now, if you want to complain about the quality or application of the makeup, OK, but that’s not what this is about. I’ve read articles that say Saldana is too thin and beautiful to play Simone. Really? So if we unpack that, we’re to believe that Simone was ugly and fat because she was dark and curvy and had afro-centric features?
Getting films made is hard. Getting films starring people of color made is even harder. This one was in production for years. To make it to the big screen you need money, talent and star power. I’ve seen many of Saldana’s films, and she has the range, the depth, the desire and the star power to get this story from the page to the theater. She already did, and we’re attacking her because of her skin color? Is that really what’s important here?
As I type this the people of Flint, Michigan, still don’t have clean water to drink, and their governor wants to use their tax dollars not to clean up the problem but to pay for the attorney he’s commissioned to prove that he did not willfully subject this community to catastrophic harm. Black women still make 63 cents for every dollar that white men make. Black people are still being killed or harassed and abused in the streets by police for little to no reason. Our schools are fractured, our communities’ backs are cracked, we’re without leadership in many cases, and this is what we focus on? An actress of color who some perceive is not dark enough to play an icon?
Let’s look at this scenario differently. Let’s consider the light that this film will shine on this legendary singer and Civil Rights activist. A new crop of music fans will come to know and appreciate Simone’s music. Hopefully her family has their publishing and licensing rights in order, and this film will put a few coins in their pockets. And what about the critical shadow the film casts over mental illness — Simone supposedly suffered from bipolar disorder — and the often cruel and misguided way people who suffer from mental illnesses are treated? And last but certainly not least, there’s a black film coming out with talented black actors in lead roles that have nothing to do with drug addiction, crime, sports, life in the ghetto, being downtrodden, horrible parents or explicit sexual perversion. Hooray!
When the movie hits theaters on April 22, let’s pay our money on opening weekend, sit down with an open mind, and watch. Give Saldana a chance. Then we’ll tender an opinion on the quality of her skill as an actress, not on the color of her skin.