Nina Simone is on the lips of many people right now. A European production decided they wanted to do a movie about Nina’s “disappearance” and eventual comeback. Great idea! Well…until they decided to get a well-known actress named Zoe Saldana to play the role. Why Zoe Saldana? Zoe has been in a lot of movies, people consider her attractive, and it will get people to care about Nina’s story. Controversy surrounded this movie as soon as people found out Zoe was going to play Nina.
Nina Simone was a woman with dark skin, deep voice, and a tough attitude. She would not have been considered attractive by most people. Her skin was dark chocolate, she had a broad nose, big teeth, and an Afro. She had a distinct accent since she came from North Carolina (Southern…but not really).
Why Zoe Saldana? Zoe has always identified as Latina. Nina was a Southern woman who connected to her African roots. Zoe was born in New York and connected to her Haitian and Dominican culture. Zoe and Nina were vastly different people. Yes, they are/were both black women. Yet, Nina came from a time during the Civil Rights Movement where black women were already considered the most unattractive women of all. Nina was placed in a very specific category of unattractive because of her high cheekbones and broad build. There was nothing quaint about her. She was an activist and much of her music was about fighting against the injustices in America. She also sang songs about knowing she was still good enough despite her looks. She made Americans uncomfortable because she went against Eurocentric notions of beauty.
Therefore, I suppose I should not have been surprised a European production company would want to do a movie about Nina using a person who didn’t resemble her in the least. Zoe’s skin was darkened for the movie. She was given veneers and a fake nose to attempt to give her more of that “Nina” look. Nice!! Oh…why couldn’t they find a woman that looked more like Nina in the first place instead of having to alter Zoe so much? Uzo Aduba from the show, Orange Is the New Black, comes to mind. She is a great actress and can sing. My personal choice would have been Lauryn Hill if she were in a place in her career that she could be dependable. Naturally, a European production would use someone like Zoe who most people already considered attractive and just black her up a little more and that should suffice.
No, Europe this is not OK. I was relieved to find out this was not a Hollywood production. Colorism is still very real and a hurtful within the black community. Colorism is what Nina fought against. Hating on someone because of their “ethnic” features is what Nina fought against in her music. The casting of Zoe has been a slap in the face to all that Nina protested, fought, and sang about for years. This is not about hating on Zoe. I like Zoe’s other roles. Yet, this movie is supposed to be a true depiction of Nina. Nina’s truth was very much wrapped up in her appearance – which is why it made no sense to try to strip away at her very black appearance in her own biopic. It is insulting and disgusting.
I am most sad about the ignorance of people on this controversy. Many black Americans don’t understand the issue since Zoe is just a lighter black woman playing a darker black woman. Yet many of these same people admit they don’t really know who Nina Simone is and not familiar with her music. I wasn’t surprised at that revelation at all. Naturally the people that didn’t even know Nina’s backstory wouldn’t understand why people are upset.
The other part to this is that Nina was such a figure during the Civil Rights Movement and was very angry about all the prejudices in America. She left for Europe just like James Baldwin did years earlier. They were accepted in Paris and London in a way that they never was in America. Americans never did give Nina Simone her credit. I am most conflicted about that. This woman was beloved in these major European cities and just a footnote for many Americans. Therefore, they decide to do a movie on her (this made me so happy). Hollywood wasn’t going to make a movie on Nina Simone – she wasn’t enough of a big deal here.
I’m glad they loved her so much they wanted to do her biopic but upset that they didn’t take more time on it to get it right – needed better casting of Nina and direction. The trailer further bothers me because Zoe didn’t have Nina’s accent. It didn’t have to be perfect but she could have tried. I don’t know what accent Zoe was doing. It sounded like some faux African accent. The singing voice was inaccurate as well. On a positive note – if this movie gets people talking and wanting to discover Nina’s music than I am grateful for that.
One of my favorite Nina Simone songs. Do you think Zoe captured Nina’s essence after watching the trailer?
Nina Simone – “Four Women”
I attached the trailer for the movie below so you all can see for yourselves.
My second favorite song by Nina Simone – “Feeling Good”