Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Zoe Saldana, Nina Simone, Race, Skin Tone and Hollywood


What do you think about supposed plans to have Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone in a movie?

One of the first things that you think about when you think of someone for these projects, is you’re going to try to make it believable in terms of appearance,” Simone Kelly, daughter of the late singer/songwriter, tells The Daily Beast. The married mother of two—an accomplished singer/actress in her own right—is in the midst of a furor over last week’s news that Saldana will play Nina.

The controversy hit a high note, with many crying foul over what some consider a dubious casting choice for the film. There’s even an online petition demanding that Saldana, who has yet to comment, be replaced by an actress “who actually looks like Nina Simone.”

With writing and directing duties going to Will & Grace producer and rumored Jodie Foster gal pal Cynthia Mort, the film, which was first announced in 2005 with Blige attached, is based on the life rights of Cliff Henderson, the openly gay personal assistant to Nina Simone in her final years.
Casting aside, Kelly is strong in her convictions. Since Nina Simone did compose much of her most pivotal music, the estate maintains control over its usage. Mort, who Kelly says she only communicated with once, may have difficulty getting rights and clearances for the songs.

“As long as this script is based on a lie, anything that comes through me will not be approved,” Kelly promises. “I cannot condone a lie. I don’t live my life as a lie. And the truth is stranger than fiction.” 
Usually I don't care about "controversies" like this but Nina Simone happens to have been a favorite singer of mine. I had a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of Saldana playing Simone. With any movie there has to be some sort of ability to suspend belief. Most movies are not documentaries. People who don't necessarily look exactly like the role can nonetheless turn in pretty good performances. But there are limits to this.

  • If I am casting for Queen Elizabeth chances are I don't want a man of any color.
  • If I am casting for Shaka Zulu I probably don't want a white man or a woman of any color.
  • If I am casting for Admiral Yamamoto at the very least I will likely be looking for a man of East Asian, preferably Japanese descent.

Now there are exceptions. Sometimes a particular actor is just so skilled that the director or producer might ignore their race or even gender and rewrite the part or even more brazenly leave the part as written and have the actor play a gender and race that is obviously not their own. That's all up to the creative impulse and whether the creators feel that the change can be sold to an audience. Money is the name of the game and you want someone who works for the story AND who can put bottoms in theater seats.
I really don't think that Zoe Saldana looks anything like Nina Simone or can be made to look like her. Nina Simone was a Black American from the South who had what can be described as distinctive looks with very strong West African features. There was nothing that was remotely biracial looking about Nina Simone. She was not mixed, biracial, multiracial, omniracial or anything like that. She was BLACK. Just in case people didn't realize that she wrote more than a few songs about it. To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Four Women, and Mississippi God*** among others let you know who she was and where she was coming from.
Zoe Saldana is an Afro-Latina with more aquiline features and a totally different look and skin tone. My understanding is that she does indeed identify as Black. It is very sensitive to write about skin tone. I don't think that there should be a paper bag test of blackness. I believe in Pan-Africanism and ultimately that all men and women are brothers and sisters. But I don't think it's correct to take a woman who looked like she had unmixed descent from West Africa and have her depicted by a woman who looks like Saldana. If someone were to do a movie depicting the lives of Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge I would not be happy if Mo'Nique or Whoopi Goldberg were playing the lead. All black people do not look alike. There are limits to believability and Saldana playing Simone crosses those limits for me. 
The elephant in the room of course is the issue that Saldana is a popular actress and it may be easier to sell a Nina Simone biopic to a white mainstream audience because of Saldana's looks, popularity and skin tone. Also given the dearth of lead roles for dark skin African American actresses it seems more than a bit unfair that a role that seems tailor made for a Viola Davis or a Rutina Wesley should be given to a Saldana.
Of course this is all subjective. If this film is made Saldana may do a bang-up job. Maybe I am full of it.

What's your take? 

Much ado about nothing?

Would a black director/writer have made the same call?

Does/should skin tone or race matter in casting?

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