Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone…?

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When I was doing research on Google for my earlier blog post “Nina Simone and Black Beauty,” I found an even better topic. But I didn’t want to throw away all that hard work! Genius that I am decided to do both. After Nina Simone comes Zoe Saldana.

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I’ll start with some background. In April 2016, the movie Nina was released in the U.S. with Zoe Saldana casted as Nina Simone. IMDb summarizes the movie as “The story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone including her rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson.”[1] What is so relevant about the movie to our class is the casting choice of Saldana, a black woman with lighter skin, thinner lips and a thinner nose than Simone. This post is a continuation of my last post in that it examines the social impact that casting a woman who closer embodies normative beauty standards (white, as we know) has. By casting Saldana, Nina Simone’s unapologetic black beauty and her insistent rejection of white beauty standards is erased.

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Throughout her life, Simone struggled in Hollywood as a dark-skinned black woman. She explained, “…and I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise—if I were a boy, it wouldn’t matter so much, but I’m a girl and in front of the public all the time wide open for them to jeer and approve of or disapprove of.”[2] Overcoming this was a major success of Simone’s. When Saldana was cast as Simone, however, the racist structures that Simone had to cope with were revealed. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in an Atlantic article, “No one on the team seems to understand the absurdity at hand—making a movie about Nina Simone while operating within the very same machinery that caused Simone so much agony in the first place.”[3] The producers, by casting Saldana, are in a way telling the audience that, no, black is not actually beautiful.

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To make matters worse, Saldana had to wear a prosthetic, wider nose, and makeup that significantly darkened her skin. I’d argue that this can’t be compared directly to blackface, as many have charged, because of the absence of direct mockery, but is instead a sign of an even deeper, more ingrained societal phenomenon. Saldana has the privilege to darken her skin and then lighten it right back up when convenient, whereas as darker skinned black women aren’t even cast as characters who are dark-skinned black women.

The difficulty dark-skinned black women, especially, face in Hollywood is what is so disheartening about the casting of Saldana as Simone. Because of her skin color and features Simone had a different experience in Hollywood than Saldana does, and that issue is completely left out of this narrative. Simone’s normatively deviant appearance was a central part of her music, but that loses so much meaning with Saldana as Simone. Saldana was cast by the same type of producers who would have rejected Simone. I haven’t seen the movie, but in my opinion, for this reason Nina is a disservice to Simone’s legacy.

[1] “Nina (2016),” IMDb.com, 1990-2017, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0493076/.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Nina Simone’s Face,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/03/the-appropriation-of-nina-simone/474186/.

[3] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Appropriation of Nina Simone,” The Atlantic, March 17, 2016 https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/nina-simone-face/472107/

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