Coffee Rhetoric: (Mis)Casting Call: The Erasure of Nina Simone's Image

August 17, 2012

(Mis)Casting Call: The Erasure of Nina Simone's Image

Nina Simone: pioneer, influential, volatile, classical music genius, revolutionary, regal and every bit the High Priestess of Soul.

If anybody is worthy of having her story brought to the big screen for posterity, it would, and should, most assuredly be Nina. Despite having to overcome racism and colorism, Nina left a legacy of music and activism that continues to resonate with her fans, lifelong and new.  

When it was announced in 2010 that a Nina Simone biopic—based on a script by TV writer, Cynthia Mort—was in development and that singer, Mary J. Blige was slated to play her, the public's interest was piqued, though some (including myself) were a bit skeptical about whether Mary had the range and right look to portray such a dynamic and complex figure.  And while Mary J. Blige emotes a similar feeling of consciousness about love and heartbreak in her own music, she doesn't necessarily harness the same sense of social awareness Nina did.  Nonetheless, some of us stayed abreast of the project, which was slated to start filming last year. Alas, it was stalled by a series of setbacks that delayed production and Mary J. Blige dropped out of the film, reportedly, due to funding. 

Folks were left to ponder who would play Nina, and bloggers and fans campaigned for the Black actresses they thought were better suited for the role – including Viola Davis, Lauryn Hill, India Arie and Adepero Oduye, who starred in the Dee Rees film, Pariah – so many were left with feelings of confusion and dismay when Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana was announced as Mary J. Blige’s replacement. With Saldana on-board to play Nina, suddenly the film’s financial setbacks were resolved and filming picked up momentum.

While Zoe Saldana is undoubtedly a capable actress and has amassed an impressive acting resume, people are understandably agitated and, of course, the ubiquitous online petition started circulating via Change.org, and chief among the petition's grievances:

"Getting light complexioned actors to play the roles of dark complexioned historical figures is not only a sign of blatant disrespect to the persons they are portraying, but it is also disrespectful to their families, to history, to the people who look like the persons being whitewashed, and to the intelligence of the audience. For too long Hollywood has gotten away with this practice of revisionist history."

 And it’s a very valid gripe that raises some important questions...

Black actresses - particularly those actresses with darker skin- often lament their experiences having to navigate the politics of an industry that’s rarely willing to cast them in non-stereotypical roles because, despite being attractive and immensely talented or right for the role, they don’t have the palatable mainstream look Hollywood casting directors desire in Black actresses, so they often lose plum roles to biracial actresses who, technically, aren't great casting choices. And that destructive notion often places Black-identified but racially mixed and ambiguous-looking actresses on a pedestal as ideal representations of the Black female aesthetic. It’s a frustrating system of whitewashing that incited people to speak up and challenge casting directors when biracial actress Jaqueline Fleming was cast as Harriet Tubman in the horror film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And while I opted not to entertain poorly rated, revisionist fantasy-horror tripe or give it any further attention than it deserved, I simply cannot abide this latest infraction, particularly since it's supposed to be based on a true account during a period in someone life.

To note, Zoe Saldana is undoubtedly part of the African Diaspora and I’m not a gatekeeper for Black is, Black ain’t however, her being cast as Nina Simone sounds as random and egregious as Diana Ross’s portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (Oscars nod notwithstanding, and yes I went there).  A large part of Nina Simone’s work and advocacy was prompted by the challenges she faced for having dark-skin and being rejected or criticized because of it. Nina was unapologetic about her brand of beauty and it was reflected in her demeanor and personal aesthetic. Commissioning an Afro-Latina actress who doesn't even come close to fitting the phenotype to evoke that struggle seems like another deliberate attempt at image erasure of Black women, by the media and entertainment industry… particularly since there are several other talented Black actresses who could’ve undoubtedly fulfilled the needs of the role.

Nina’s daughter, Simone released a carefully worded but eloquent Facebook missive about the film’s casting, in which she makes it clear that the film is an unauthorized version of her mother’s storied life,
"Please note, this project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone Estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate. …

If written, funded and CAST PROPERLY a movie about my mother will make a lasting imprint.
My vision of a movie about my mother includes SO many pivotal moments that are monumentally important towards relaying the journey of a woman whose journey began as a child prodigy born in North Carolina in the 1930's...too many to list here but, trust when I say the tale will inspire through the sheer sharing of HOW Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone, The High Priestess Of Soul renowned worldwide. How many of you know my mother's FIRST love was classical music? Do you know the hours she practiced preparing to audition for the Curtis Institute of Music only to be rejected because of the color of her skin? **After my mother made her transition I accepted a diploma from that very same institute with a speech she began writing but was unable to finish prior to her death. **

As a child, my mother was told her nose was too big and she was too dark yet she graduated valedictorian of her high school class - The Allen School for Girls - AND, skipped two grades. Nina was one of the most outspoken, prolifically gifted artists using the stage to speak out against racism during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's. Her friends included Betty Shabazz, Lorraine Hansberry (my godmother), Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Miriam Makeba, Stokely Carmichael, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens worldwide. Had she become a classical pianist, which was her dream....shattered, I doubt she would have found her true destiny. Nina Simone was a voice for her people and she spoke out HONESTLY, sang to us FROM HER SOUL, shared her joy, pain, anger and intelligence poetically in a style all her own. My mother stood up for justice, by any means necessary hahahaha YES, she was a revolutionary til the day she died. From Tragedy to Transcendence - MY VISION. The whole arc of her life which is inspirational, educational, entertaining and downright shocking at times is what needs to be told THE RIGHT WAY."
Tambey A. Obenson of the website Shadow and Act has been tracking this project closely and recently obtained and read a draft of the Nina script, writing,
 “Ultimately, the project is meant to honor the passionate soul and sensitive nature – yet resilience- of an immense talent, who, despite her grand achievements, struggled with remorse, insecurity, feeling unloved and misunderstood. The film’s success really depends on the execution. Perhaps with the right performers, editing, cinematography and direction, this could be an interesting, compelling film. Without it, it could be a mess, suffer from a lack of substance and other ills, like, bad acting.”
While some petitioners are admittedly unfairly questioning the authenticity of Zoe Saldana’s race (the Black experience and Diaspora is universal after all) the fact still remains that casting her as Nina Simone seems like a decision based on gross superficiality and Hollywood executives’ disdain for Black women who look phenotypically, well, BLACK...let’s be real. It's a valid point the film's director and producers, Zoe Saldana, her supporters, and the film's apologists don't seem to want to grasp in their defense of the casting choice.

That the film’s financial backing was immediately restored once Zoe was cast in the role speaks volumes about how the Hollywood machine works when it comes to Black actresses with darker skin and keener features.  As far as I can see this project doesn’t sound as if it’s genuinely looking to honor Nina’s legacy as much as they’re trying to tell an ahistorical version of her story through what they consider to be an acceptable looking medium, in order to clean up at the box office and placate the gaze; not to mention it does a grave disservice to those young Black women and girls who grapple with some of the same issues Nina Simone did, including colorism, and who are constantly being fed messages through mass media that they aren't beautiful in their skin.

Those young women would benefit from seeing Nina Simone’s story portrayed on film the right way.