The trailer and poster for the upcoming biopic about Nina Simone was released recently and got a less than enthusiastic response. Zoe Saldana, a light skinned, black, American woman of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent was made to wear dark makeup (likened to blackface by some) and a prosthetic nose in order to convincingly resemble the legendary singer and activist Nina Simone.
It’s been a controversial decision from the moment Saldana was cast to play Simone in 2012 after the director's first choice, Mary J Blige, dropped out.
Nina’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, has previously said that Zoe being cast to play her mother was “not the best choice,” but she has now also defended the actress, as told to TIME, after the rather vicious backlash from the public upon release of the official trailer. She says it’s unfortunate that Saldana is being attacked for her role “when she is someone who is part of a larger picture,” and not responsible for “any of the writing or the lies".
Now, I understand the anger and hurt about this casting decision as Nina Simone’s story is a very important one. The legendary singer often spoke out about not only celebrating blackness, but dark skin and natural hair as well. So when the trailer was released with the naturally light-skinned Zoe in obviously caked-on dark makeup, a wig and a fake nose, it set Twitter alight.
Soul singer India Arie also spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how the film does not convey Nina Simone’s “true essence”, how she does not blame Zoe, and how the portrayal of Nina in the movie was a caricature.
And I think that’s the one thing that stands out the most: it just wasn't Nina Simone. After watching the trailer, I was horrified. The beautiful Zoe Saldana (who, in my opinion, was overacting) looked… well, weird and not at all like Nina Simone. It was quite obvious that she had been plastered with makeup and prosthetics.
This actually made me laugh at first. That Hollywood somehow thought this was okay. And then I thought about it and realised that this also goes back to Hollywood’s diversity issue - using a light-skinned actress in dark makeup was somehow more acceptable than just finding a dark-skinned actress for the role. That colourism is a very real problem and people are angry for a very good reason. Putting Zoe in what is, effectively blackface is as this CNN article highlights, “a painful reminder of the abhorrent history of blackface in Hollywood,” that is not and should not be acceptable.
Back in 2013, Zoe did a cover shoot with Allure, and said, about the backlash she had received then for being cast as Nina, that she would “honour and respect my black community because that's who I am," and then also said if Elizabeth Taylor could be cast as Cleopatra then she could play Nina Simone. And yet she doesn’t see the irony in her words. Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Cleopatra because to portray a powerful queen as a woman of colour was a laughable concept in 1963. Because Hollywood still thinks, just like it thought then, that whiter skin was better. That representation didn’t matter.
When I read this piece from Huffington Post Black Voices, called “The Nina Trailer Is What Happens When White People Tell Black Stories” and became aware of the fact that David Oyelowo, who plays Nina’s manager, Clifton Henderson, in the movie, is also the sole black producer in a mostly white production team. This is when I realised why they didn’t think a black woman wearing blackface was a problem, why a historically and culturally significant figure such as Nina being portrayed this way didn’t bother the people who were making this movie – they’re too white. Too white to know that this story is extremely important to many people, especially those dark skinned black women with “nappy” hair who identified with Nina and the way she looked like and rightly lauded her as a hero.
So the problem here, once again, is not a lack of blackness, or even the blackface, but that whiteness is still too big a part of black stories.