“I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise.”
– Nina Simone
People are either confused or willfully dense so I’ll take some time and space to address a few of the reactions to Cynthia Mort’s “Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone” controversy.
“OMG R U SAYING U THINK MOVIES SHOULD B CAST BASED ON RACE/SKIN COLOR?!?!!? OMG THAT’S RACIST WOW OMG! HASHTAG RACIST!”
Ummmmm….movies are already being cast based on race and/or skin color. In pretty much all imaginable aspects of society, race/color preference starts at the whitest end of the spectrum and moves on down to the darker end. There is already a hierarchy in place and in action, so every single facet of society (even *gasp!* the casting of the film in question!) must be evaluated based on the reality of this hierarchy.
Folks are talking as though there were some level racial playing field right now and if someone raises their hand and says “Uh, hey y’all, that don’t seem right” then they are either whining or engaging in a nefarious, unwarranted race game.
The playing field isn’t level. Not even close. To imply (or outright state) that it’s racist to believe someone with a more appropriate appearance should’ve landed the role of Nina Simone is to willfully ignore the fact that race/skin color is already/always a deciding factor. Current racism/colorism is so deeply embedded in the process that it practically ensured a more appropriate person wouldn’t receive the role of Nina Simone in Cynthia Mort’s film. Pointing out the problem isn’t what’s wrong; that the problem even exists at all is what’s wrong.
The facts couldn’t be more obvious:
Racism — wherein white skin is given preferential treatment over black skin — already exists. Colorism — wherein light skin is given preferential treatment over dark skin — already exists. The casting of Zoe Saldana was in and of itself an exercise in already (and wildly) present colorism. To turn around and accuse people who point this out of being racist is to operate under the premise that racism/colorism don’t exist; or to pretend that racism/colorism aren’t already part of the process through which the casting of films take place; or to assume that the casting of this particular film was somehow magically removed from this already present atmosphere of racism/colorism. That logic is so ass-backwards that it seems almost intentional. Almost.
The “Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone” phenomenon is painfully symbolic of colorism and perfectly mirrors the marginalization (or altogether erasure) of women at the darker end of the spectrum.
“OMG R U SAYING U THINK ZOE SALDANA ISN’T “BLACK ENOUGH”!?!!? OMG HOW DARE YOU THAT’S RACIST OMG! HASHTAG BLACK ON BLACK RACISM!”
No, sane and fair-minded people are not saying Zoe Saldana isn’t “black enough.” What we are saying is that Nina Simone was “too black.” THAT is the point. That is the entire point.
Nina was too black and that much blackness was unacceptable. (I would argue that it remains so to this day.) Nina was so black that her blackness was detrimental to her. Nina’s blackness was undesirable, unwanted, and unwelcome. Nina’s blackness became a pit in her soul from which she sang, cried out, and sang while crying out — demanding to be heard and struggling to connect with other souls suffering the same pain. Nina fought to reach and resonate with blackness in others but especially with other “too black” spirits.
THAT is the point: not that Zoe isn’t “black enough” but that Nina was “too black.” If you’re unable or unwilling to differentiate between those two perspectives it’s because you’re only able or willing to view this dynamic from the lighter end of the racial/color hierarchy looking downward rather than being able or willing to empathize with someone in a position at the darker end of the hierarchy looking upward.
Nina was “too black” and to neglect that part of her for any reason whatsoever is to dismiss her deep blackness as either irrelevant or inconvenient. To neglect that part of her is to tell other women who reside in a position at the darker end of the hierarchy that their experience is likewise just as meaningless and that their blackness is likewise just as undesirable, unwanted, and unwelcome as was Nina’s.
Zoe Saldana is “black enough,” but she is not as dark as was Nina. There is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging this fact. Acknowledging it isn’t racist, it’s honest. Part of acknowledging this fact is also acknowledging the perpetual disparity in experience based on different shades of blackness — a disparity that’s imposed by racism and colorism.
It’s not racist to speak about the disparity or to expect that differing experiences be accurately and authentically represented. To ignore the disparity by robbing dark women of their voice and the opportunity to participate in representing their experience is to simultaneously enable and reinforce colorism. So again, it’s not that Zoe isn’t “black enough,” it’s that Nina was “too black.” The difference isn’t trivial; the difference is a lifetime of rejection, isolation, and suffering.
“OMG A BLACK PERSON CAN’T DO BLACKFACE!! THAT’S NOT WHAT THIS IS!!! OMG YOU DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND WHAT BLACKFACE IS!! HASHTAG NOT BLACKFACE YOU DUMMY!”
The history of blackface does in fact include black individuals that blackened themselves and made themselves blacker. So factually black people can and did perform in blackface. But, that’s not the full picture here nor does it capture the point. Blackface is part and parcel of minstrelsy. The issue goes beyond makeup and blackface (or perhaps more accurately here — black[er]face). As has been pointed out by several people, multiple black actors have blackened themselves up in order to fill a role and it wasn’t seen as “blackface” or didn’t receive the same level of backlash.
That blackface is part and parcel of minstrelsy accounts for the difference in how some instances are considered “blackface” whereas others might simply be considered someone wearing dark makeup.
Blackface as part of minstrelsy makes a mockery of blackness, minimizes it, parodies it, dehumanizes it. Blackface as part of minstrelsy is a gross and painfully intentional misrepresentation of blackness. It is a tool that rips black skin off the soul to which it’s attached and holds up that skin solely for white eyes to gaze upon — a process that makes blackness carnally tangible and quantifiable while enforcing whiteness as something ethereal and ubiquitous. It is white supremacy as theater.
What makes Cynthia Mort’s film an instance of blackface for many is the degree to which it diminishes Nina Simone and turns her black skin into an afterthought, a second thought, or no thought at all. The black(er)face and prosthetics applied to Zoe in order to match Nina’s color and phenotype, coupled with the bastardization of Nina’s life story throughout the script, leaves many with the bitter, nasty aftertaste of mockery, parody, minstrelsy, and — yes — blackface.
“OMG IT’S JUST ACTING!!! IT’S ART!!! SHUT UP!!! JUST WAIT UNTIL YOU SEE THE FILM! HASHTAG LEAVE ZOE ALONE! BIG MEANY!”
The entirety of the fault does not fall on Zoe Saldana, but she is the face of this creation so unfortunately much of the rage gets directed at her. While a large large large majority of the rage belongs directed elsewhere (director, casting agent, producer, distributor), Zoe is not completely absolved from all personal responsibility or accountability. Acting is not a magic shield that protects one from the consequences of their art.
It’s important to note that we are only talking about NINA SIMONE here, and this is not meant as a referendum on racism or colorism as a whole. This situation is very specifically about Nina Simone and the large majority are fighting to protect what Nina means and represents to us. While our feelings about Nina might be larger than life (larger perhaps than Nina was when she was alive), it is Nina’s identity and the symbol she has become that is sacred to so many. That identity is inseparable from Nina’s blackness. Although there are people who might make the same arguments about the casting of a biopic about, say, Whitney or Aaliyah or Ray, it might come as a surprise how many of us only feel this way and feel so strongly about it because we are talking about NINA SIMONE.
Nina as a civil rights icon and damn near religious figure to so many warrants (and practically begs for) extra consideration or sensitivity when handling her story or representing her. Cynthia Mort’s production not only lacks any such consideration or sensitivity but also has almost gone out of its way to be heartless, thoughtless, and demeaning. While no one can necessarily accuse those involved of setting out to handle Nina in such a manner — still — here we are. And silent we will not be.
In fact, I would argue that outrage over this project has led not only to layers upon layers of necessary discourse, but also in some way contributed to the impetus behind Liz Garbus’ masterpiece “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, a documentary that represents Nina in a brutally honest, beautiful, and authentic manner — mostly in Nina’s own voice. If we can be thankful for anything regarding Cynthia Mort’s project, perhaps it’s that it might’ve led — even if in the smallest way — to a film more worthy of Nina and more reflective of Nina’s spirt.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” is also proof that shutting up never accomplishes anything. We were never and are never going to shut up about “Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone” because the second we shut up about it is the second that we risk Cynthia Mort’s lie becoming an unsuspecting and uninformed viewer’s truth.
Aaron Overfield – content manager, NinaSimone.com