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Casting Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone shows Hollywood’s racism

ByRowan Gourlay

Mar 21, 2016

The decision to cast Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone is emblematic of Hollywood’s problem with race. Saldana, an actor of Puerto Rican and Dominican Republican descent, plays the singer wearing dark makeup, an Afro wig and a prosthetic nose. Although the motives are very different – and that is important – this is all too reminiscent of blackface.

Obviously, the directors of Nina are not trying to mock Nina Simone, but they are displaying an astonishing amount of insensitivity around issues of race. If it were true that, as many have cried, race doesn’t matter and it’s all about the acting, then surely the directors would not have felt it necessary to alter Saldana’s skin at all. Physical similarities are important; no one would suggest that Saldana should be cast as Marilyn Monroe.

The fact is, Nina Simone’s racial identity was a hugely important part of her career – she was refused a place at a prestigious school of music because of her colour, and constantly struggled with racism throughout her career. Her appearance shaped her experience and how she saw the world, leading to her involvement in the civil rights movement. Much of her music was written in protest; songs such as ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘Old Jim Crow’ all have strong links to a history of racism and segregation in America. In casting a lighter skinned actor, the directors of Nina are erasing the importance of racial identity from Nina Simone’s story.

While it is indeed true that all black women are underrepresented and undervalued in society, Saldana’s light skin, small nose and straight hair mean that she has more opportunities than many darker skinned actresses. Often, the only roles that dark skinned black actresses are cast in are maids or slaves, although this is starting to change, albeit all too slowly.

There are many darker skinned actors for whom this would have been a great opportunity to play someone so ‘unapologetically black’ – Uzo Aduba and Viola Davis are just two that spring to mind.

Simone’s own daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, described the casting as a bad choice, saying that there were many darker skinned actors with ‘beautiful, luscious lips and wide noses, and who know their craft,’ who could have better portrayed her mother. Kelly did, however, go on to say that Saldana shouldn’t be blamed for the decision, but that is was part of a larger picture.

With the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, representation within Hollywood has been a contentious issue recently. In a year when not a single black actor was nominated for an Academy Award, many have suggested that the problem lies behind the camera, blaming a lack of diversity in filmmaking and production. Indeed, the team behind the decision to cast Zoe Saldana was almost entirely white, which might suggest why they failed to see that it would be problematic.

The argument that Saldana is a good actor and so deserves the role implies that there are no darker skinned actors who could have done as good a job. Surely no one believes that the colour of someone’s skin affects how well they can act, so why not give this opportunity to a darker skinned actor?

Saldana has said that actors who looked more like Nina Simone passed on the role before she accepted it. However, the fact that there are not a lot of well-known actors who resemble Simone is a clear sign of racism within the industry itself, something that the Oscars emphasise annually. Hollywood is suffering from a lack of representation, and Nina Simone’s story will not be done justice until this is properly recognised.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore

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