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Zoe Saldana: After Being Cast As Nina Simone, A Controversy About Racism in the Movies Begins

The casting of Zoe Saldana to play musical legend Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic has fanned the flames of debate over whether there’s such a thing as “black enough.”

Critics are upset with the pick because Saldana (an American actress of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent) is slimmer than Simone was, with smaller features and lighter skin. The fear is that casting her would only perpetuate the belief that an appearance like hers is preferable to that of someone more like Simone, who was curvy, dark skinned, and had big lips and a wide nose.   

petition on change.org to “Replace Zoe Saldana with an actress who actually looks like Nine Simone” states that, “Getting light complexioned actors to play the roles of dark complexioned historical figures is not only a sign of blatant disrespect to the persons they are portraying, but it is also disrespectful to their families, to history, to the people who look like the persons being whitewashed, and to the intelligence of the audience.” 

The fact that Simone was a civil rights activist and fought hard for a place in the music industry and the world in spite of her race and appearance just adds another layer to this issue, and is, perhaps, one of the strongest arguments for at least trying to represent her accurately. 

But is this casting choice further whitewashing Hollywood, sending a message to young black girls everywhere that they’re not pretty enough for the big screen? Or is it just an effect of the fact that film is art, representation, and not exact replication – or is it both of those things? 

The entire point of acting is to play someone other than yourself. Jamie Foxx isn’t blind but I think everyone agreed that he played an amazing Ray Charles. Lawrence Olivier was a breathtaking Othello. So, should Zoe Saldana only be allowed to play Colombian and Puerto Rican characters? Should her part in Avatar have gone to a real alien?

Casting is rarely an act of exact physical representation. Colin Firth doesn’t really look much like King George VI, Gael García Bernal was really far too sexy to play Che Guevara, etc. So, does it matter that Saldana doesn’t look exactly like Simone, especially if she can capture her character and spirit?

Simone’s daughter, who is not involved with the project, told the Inquisitor, “The one actress that I’ve had in my heart for a very long time, whose work I’m familiar with already, is Kimberly Elise. Many people have spoken to me about Viola. I love her look. I love her energy. Both of the actresses that I’ve mentioned are women of color, are women with beautiful, luscious lips and wide noses, and who know their craft. I also have no problem introducing someone we’ve never heard of before who can play my mother.” She added that her mother’s choice to play her was Whoopi Goldberg.

But while the singer’s daughter may be open to a new actress playing her mother, the truth is that Saldana was probably chosen for her bankability. She’s proven that she can knock out blockbusters, which is what the producers are probably more concerned with than how their film will contribute to the conversation about racial identity.

As for why they didn’t enlist Viola Davis, I’m not sure. She, too, has shown star power, and she definitely looks more like Simone than Saldana does. Casting her could have been a win/win.

Casting debates aside, a biopic of Nina Simone is a great idea. First off, her life was a great story, full of music, tragedy, and politics. She’s an under celebrated cultural icon. Not only that but she’s a strong, beautiful black woman, which Hollywood could certainly use more of. But in the end I think the social impact of the film and how Simone is portrayed overall, the script, the directing, and Saldana’s acting will influence its message about this strong, black icon more, rather than whether or not her skin is dark enough. 

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