The Whispers of Womanism initially commented on the casting choice for the upcoming Nina Simone biopic when the news first made headlines. While the weight of the tragedy seemed in full flight upon this announcement, seeing the trailer enhanced any and all ominous feelings provoked in the announcement.
In the “Nina” trailer viewers see a usually milky brown Zoe Saldana painted four to five shades darker. The makeup is egregious and seemingly more fit for a Saturday Night Live skit than a motion picture film. Saldana also dons a prosthetic nose to resemble the late Nina Simone. Her speech is slow and forced, and the trailer,while short, speaks volumes.
Embedded in a series of scenes, each more offensive than the last, the trailer depicts how little Simone’s legacy means to a country that robbed her of her mental sanity.
To the white woman who wrote the script (which to my
knowledge is based off fiction and not fact), to the unconscious black man who is distributing the movie- this upcoming film is another means to make money at the expense of black integrity. However to the countless black girls scattered around the globe who see themselves in Nina Simone’s full features, or those who simply found inspiration in a black female student of classical music who not only made a name for herself but used her platform to speak to the injustices of black people; this film is as tragic as watching her hang from tree. This analogy may seem harsh to some, so allow me to fully expand this comparison. Lynchings were a form of entertainment that simultaneously worked to terrorize the black community into a position of inferiority. The upcoming “Nina” film, also serves as entertainment. Yet, in draping its lead actress in blackface and featuring a white writer writing the black experience, “Nina” functions as terrorism to the black community making a parody out of our cultural pioneers.
Rather than empathize with the loss Saldana brings to the role, her casting results in claims of “reverse racism” or “colorism from the black community.” This proves that the labyrinth of racism casts so much confusion to those who fail to understand its poisonous ways. While blackness is not a skin color, full features and darker skin, traditionally and in contemporary society yield a far different experience than those with lighter skin and “finer” features. So while Zoe Saldana does possess darker skin and a full nose, her beauty does not provoke the same reaction as Simone’s once did. Yes, both women are beautiful, but Zoe’s looks and body bear a diluted blackness that affords a profitable and pseudo diversity. Zoe’s pseudo blackness landed her the black female lead in “Drumline” (2002) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”(2005). Saldana also played Cateleya in “Columbiana” an orphaned Latina who works to avenge her parent’s death. While “black” and “hispanic” are not mutually exclusive, the two identities afford a flexibility not afforded to black women who bear a Nina Simone-esque beauty.
Saldana’s look, while not European, appeases a European aesthetic. No, her skin is not pale, but it is not a deep brown either. No, she does’t have a button nose but her nostrils and nose bridge are a few generations removed from her African ancestors, and her hair whether natural or not, is silky and long- appeasing one of the most consistent standards of beauty. Simone did not have the privilege of “passable” black features that watered down her heritage. Thus, part of Simone’s remark ability was that she made it against the racist and prejudice odds that tirelessly worked against her.
In response to her critics, Saldana responds with the late Simone’s words:
“ I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.”
In using this quote Saldana seems to speak to her fears surrounding the role. However, none of the discussion surrounding Nina Simone or her upcoming film is individualized, for the bigger picture is far more haunting. To cast a lead bearing Simone’s physical features would mean that Hollywood would have to confront its own fear of black women with Afrocentric features in starring and uplifting roles. To have a woman bearing Simone’s physical traits singing “Mississippi God Damn” amidst an America sullied in the same hate that existed decades ago- is fearful to an America that wishes for blacks to remain unaware of their own beauty and power. A talented singer and songwriter of songs like “I Put a Spell on You,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “Blackbird,” Simone was also intertwined with some of the most pivotal moments and people in black history. Simone marched next to Dr. King in the famous Selma march and lived besides the late great Malcolm X in Mount Vernon, NY. Simone also wrote “Mississippi Goddamn” in response to Medgar Evans’ 1963 assassination. Therefore, Nina was not just alive during the civil rights era she lived a pivotal decade in Black history.
Simone once said,
“There is no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”
History has always been an important component of black culture, mainly because so much of it has been withheld from us as a community. Simone could not have known that one day she herself would be a part of history. And while a documentary in her honor debuted on Netflix in late 2015, the popular release of Saldana’s film will acquire much more attention and potentially garner more influence. Yes, this should be a lesson to place less emphasis on popular culture in preserving out greats. But if dismantling popular culture was so easy, we’d have much more black authors and scholars and far less black reality television stars. If we live in a world were Zoe Saldana plays Nina Simone, a white man plays Michael Jackson and white men portray the Gods of Egypt- one by one our heroes are distorted and blacks watch as our legacy is lynched by the lies of white supremacy.
Nina Simone understood white supremacy. She not only understood it, but she spoke out against it. Simone desired an equitable experience. She sought the ability to write, perform, love and exist in America beyond the chains of systemic oppression. Yet, her hopes only fostered an anger and disappointment mirrored in the masses of Black Americans who composed her fanbase. In speaking of the prejudice bred by white supremacy Simone said:
“The worst thing about that kind of prejudice… is that while you feel hurt and angry and all the rest of it, it feeds you self-doubt. You start thinking, perhaps I am not good enough.”
The true detriment of white supremacy and its diverse implementation is that is breeds self-hate in its victims. Rather than questioning the ways of whiteness, the initial reaction to cyclical disenfranchisement and prejudice is to question oneself. Thus, the true reason why a Nina Simone film authored by a white woman seemingly unversed in Ms. Simone’s life, and Zoe Saldana cast as the lead is problematic is because it too plants a seed of self- doubt. Both work to distort Simone’s legacy in hopes of implementing a white friendly version of a black woman’s life.
I’ll end this piece with a final quote from Ms. Simone:
“I came to expect despair every time I set foot in my own country, and I was never disappointed.”
me too Miss Nina. Me too.