The Problems With Zoe Saldana’s Casting As Nina Simone Are More Than Skin Deep
On Tuesday, we learned that the embattled biopic loosely based on Nina Simone’s life, simply called Nina, will be released on April 22. On Wednesday, the trailer was released. And, while all the sentiments against Zoe Saldana’s blackface (or “mud face”) and fake accent are correct, there’s a bigger reason why Saldana never should have taken the role in the first place: Saldana doesn’t believe that Black womanhood is a thing.
Saldana is a Dominican actress who would typically be identified as Afro-Latina. While she has starred in many blockbuster films like Avatar and the newest Star Trek series, she has yet to make a foray into films which depict historically or contemporary Black stories. In fact, in most of her movies, she plays opposite White male love interests, likely an intentional gesture to remain appealing to mainstream (read: White) viewers.
When asked about her identities, Saldana has displayed a very shallow analysis of race and gender in Hollywood, or in society at-large. Specifically, she doesn’t even like to talk about her racial identity because it makes her “uncomfortable.”
Let’s not forget what Saldana had to say to BET about her feelings on race:
“I find it uncomfortable to have to speak about my identity all of the time, when in reality it’s not something that drives me or wakes me up out of bed everyday. I didn’t grow up in a household where I was categorized by my mother. I was just Zoe and I could have and be anything that I ever wanted to do…and every human being is the same as you. So to all of a sudden leave your household and have people always ask you, “What are you, what are you” is the most uncomfortable question and it’s literally the most repetitive question. I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they can contribute as individuals and not what they look like.”
Or, what she told Allure about the intersections of race and gender:
“It’s hard enough to be a woman on this earth. So to be an American or black or Latina, it’s arbitrary compared to our battles as women.”
Most of the criticism of Saldana’s depiction of Simone has rested in her phenotypical unlikeness from the iconic singer and the film’s starkly White production and directorial team. If the responses from the film’s distribution company are any indication, it’s clear why so many fans have expressed their concerns. However, while I fundamentally agree with criticisms about White people making Black movies, I think this conversation is much deeper than that.
Given her general distance from race in general, how could Saldana possibly bring forth Nina in Nina without first understanding the core of what it means to be both Black and woman in the United States?
For Simone, being both Black and woman was a central thread sewing together her familial, professional, and social lives. The accomplished vocalist and pianist she was, Simone used instrumentation and the natural raspyness of her vocal chords to bring us songs like “Blackbird,” an ode to Black women in the struggle for liberation. Even more apt a song to depict Simone’s highlighting of the tensions between Blackness and womanhood is “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” In it, Simone hauntingly describes the tumult of her intersections including her documented struggles with depression and anxiety.
“You know sometimes baby I’m carefree, with a joy that’s hard to hide.
And then sometimes it seems again that all I have is worry, and then you bound to see my other side.
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
I can’t help but believe that everyone involved in making this “story” of Nina Simone’s life see her as no more than a sequence of ups and downs, protagonists and antagonists, obstacles and triumphs that will play out well on the silver screen. Their focus on her actions, failures, and struggles misses the point that the entirety of Nina Simone’s life must be couched in a critical analysis of race and gender. From her birth as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933 to her death as Nina Simone on April 21, 2003, all of Ms. Simone was both Black and woman. There is no other way to understand her.
Since this movie wasn’t made with the goal of truly understanding Simone, it’s clear why Saldana was cast. Just like the White people who see Simone as just a singer with an interesting life, Saldana has an utter absence of grounding in what Nina Simone described about herself in her own words. Saldana is anchorless when it comes to the struggles Simone so artfully illustrates through her life’s work. In essence, Zoe Saldana herself is whitewashed. Of course she needed blackface and spectacle to conjure up even a trite rendition of Nina Simone.
While I am sure Saldana gave her best possible performance in the soon-to-be-released film, I am also confident that her best never could be enough. Without any attempt at embodying Black womanhood in real life, Saldana never could have done Nina justice. So, this isn’t just about her skin. It’s about linked fate, a concept which Saldana and the team behind this travesty of a film clearly have no knowledge of.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)