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, 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 actresses with darker skin—often lament their experiences having to navigate the politics of an industry that’s rarely willing to cast them in meaty, non-stereotypical roles, because (despite being attractive, immensely talented, and a good fit for a role) they don’t have the crossover look the Hollywood machine seems to require of its Black actresses; so they often lose plum roles to, what I call, the Halle Berry/Paula Patton allure… And that destructive notion (which is rooted in White Supremacy) often places Black identified but racially ambiguous looking/biracial actresses on a pedestal as ideal representatives of the Black female aesthetic.
It’s a frustrating system of erasure that incited people to react,when biracial actress Jaqueline Fleming was cast as Harriet Tubman in Tim Burton's farcical fantasy-horror flick Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and when Thandie Newton was cast as an Igbo woman, for the film adaptation of Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book, Half of A Yellow Sun, earlier this year. 

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 is as random and erroneous as Diana Ross’s portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues – (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.  Her identity and social activism were part and parcel to who she was. Nina was unapologetic about her brand of beauty and it was reflected in her demeanor, in her art, and in her personal aesthetic. Commissioning a multi-ethnic Afro-Latina actress who doesn't even come close to possessing the phenotype, disposition, or social awareness to evoke that struggle, and who will often engage discussions about race and diversity in Hollywood in a lazy and awkward way, seems like another deliberate attempt at erasing women who are monoracially Black, by the media and entertainment industry; particularly since there are several other talented non-mixed Black actresses who could have undoubtedly fulfilled the needs of the role. And let's not deny the fact that, while Zoe is too dark according to her own community's standards, she still has the sort of ‘blended with other’ Black look that allows her to move through Hollywood visibly as a sex symbol and play a wide array of roles.

Nina’s daughter Simone released a carefully worded but eloquent statement via Facebook, about Zoe Saldana being cast to play her mother; in which she makes it clear that the film is an unauthorized version of Nina’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 an 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. "
Tambay 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 Blackness and are seemingly unclear about the nuances of race vs ethnicity, the fact still remains that casting her as Nina Simone seems like a decision based on gross superficiality and Hollywood executives’ disdain for a specific type of Black female beauty... Let’s be real. It's a glaringly obvious slight that Zoe Saldana fans and the film's apologists refuse to grasp in their blind defense of the casting choice.

That the film’s financial backing was (allegedly) immediately restored once Zoe was cast in the role, speaks volumes about how the Hollywood machine works when it comes to the type of Black actress they're willing to put their money behind; which is why I can't stress enough, the importance of telling our own stories and supporting those writers and filmmakers that do just that, with honesty and integrity. And from my vantage point, this project doesn't seem as if it’s looking to honor or respect Nina’s overall legacy and story, as much as the filmmaker, actors involved and producers are trying to filter her story through a skewed lens in hopes of cleaning up at the box office and festivals.

And regardless of whether or not the project is an independent production that'll be shown in select theaters, the politics circulating around it does a disservice to those young Black women and girls who’re struggling or aspiring actresses and who grapple with some of the same issues Nina Simone did—primarily colorism, racism and misogynoir—and who are constantly being sold on the idea that they aren't beautiful enough in their skin.
Essentially, this is bigger than Zoe Saldana, because this is a clear illustration of what happens when White filmmakers, casting directors, and producers decide to precariously take the wheel and steer the direction of Black people's stories. 


Demeriese Naima Valier said...

Yes, Yes, YES!!! I am the woman who started the petition and of all the things I have read online about this subject, you sum up my reasons for starting the petition perfectly. Let me state that I have never questioned Zoe's blackness. I really don't care what she is. All I knew is that she looked nothing like Nina and for someone who's look was a form of activism for them getting someone who looks the total opposite of how she did is ironic and disrespectful.

Anonymous said...

Jimmy Iovine, the producer of this film, is also a new investor in Carol's Daughter. Under the new leadership CD decided to move away from black women in favor of muti- cultural women. Seems like a pattern.

Tiff J said...

@Demeriese: Your petition definitely got the dialogue going, and it holds the casting directors and all other parties involved, accountable for their continued disdain for a certain type of female Black-ness. When people insist that the outrage somehow undermines Zoe's race or acting fortitude, it derails from the actual *crux* of the conversation: That Zoe is (willingly) being used as a watered down and palatable representative, to relay some trumped up version of Nina's story, to placate skewed views of Black beauty. And it's not cool.

@Anonymous: Interesting tidbit and connection, and definitely good to know. I recall reading some disheartening things about the current marketing decisions Carol Daughter has employed, isolating their initial demographic.

Gary Lloyd said...

Who in Hollywood is responsible for this idiocy?

The whole point of Nina Simone was she was one of those rare AAs with not a drop of Caucasian blood -- she was black than most Africans!

No one will go to see this insulting movie. I know I won't

Anonymous said...

As a first-generation Nigerian American, I am SO tired of Hollywood implying that my looks are too strong to be perceived as beautiful.

As a singer with a deep voice myself, I am also a huge Nina Simone fan. Her music touches my soul, but her story resonates most with me. I look at her and see a struggling artist who lacked self-confidence because of her look and her sound. Yet somehow, she rose above all of that to become one of the most respected artists of any color or gender in the last century.

If this movie wishes to truly portray what demons tortured her, they're going to need to represent her as she was: African Queen, wide nose, wide hips, dark skin, full lips! Or else, half the story is just lost.

Anonymous said...

For a different point of view on this matter check out:

Tiff J said...

@Anonymous 2:46: "As a first-generation Nigerian American, I am SO tired of Hollywood implying that my looks are too strong to be perceived as beautiful. "

--And this is why it's important that Nina's story is portrayed with the honesty and integrity it deserves. While it may not come in the form of Cynthia Mort's current script, perhaps someone will create a biopic that truly honors Nina's legacy by telling her story the right way, for posterity.

The media continues to derail and make this about an affront to Zoe Saldana's race and acting capabilities, when it's not about whether or not Zoe is Black or can act. It's about the erasure of Nina's image, told via an actress, deemed to be *acceptable* to a mainstream audience, because her look is bankable. That an actress that shares Nina's phenotype isn't, is definitely a problem.

Thanks for insightful comment!

stephane said...

Sorry for my english , i'm french and not "black".

I'm a fan of Nina since i was a young boy. I listen carefully Nina album, every time i can in my room with no light.

I try to receive their soul inside me and I try to hearing like Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles not with my eyes but my heart.

I have a multicolor family and theses subjects is very inconfortable for me.

Don't forget that a the end we are all dust.


Tiff J said...

Hi Stephane,

Firstly, your English/text was fine.

Also, re: " I have a multicolor family and theses subjects is very inconfortable for me. Don't forget that at the end we are all dust."

While I understand your perspective, perhaps the mechanics of race relations and colorism work a little differently where you're from than it does here in the U.S.? I'm not sure... I can only speak from experiences here.

Because there's so much painful history and present racial politics that're still prevalent in this current cult of personality, these sorts of discussions are not meant to make people feel comfortable.

If the impact of certain narratives having to do with race make you uncomfortable, then... well... they should.

Phrases like, "We're all human,"; "Can't you just get over it,"; "I'm Color-blind"; "Reverse-racism"; and "We're all dust"
are silencing techniques used to try to shut marginalized groups up, because people-- (particularly those who *benefit* from privilege and supremacy)--
don't want to have their sensibilities and privilege challenged.

I don't write about or broach these subjects to make people feel warm and fuzzy. I write about this stuff to increase awareness and to encourage *honest* dialogue.

Please refer to this post, where Caribbean-Canadian writer, Nalo Hopkinson talks about people's reluctance to discuss racial politics.

Coffee Rhetoric: Nalo Hopkinson Discusses Race

Thank you for visiting.

Miche B said...


Anonymous said...

This is RIDICULOUS! Where were the floods of anger when darker skinned Diana Ross played much lighter skinned Billy Holiday - I don't remember darker skinned blacks getting all up in arms.

It's called acting GET OVER IT - you pick the best actress - I thought the Diana casting was odd but she captured the essence of Billy (which btw was the most important thing) so color or hue of skin was not so important to me when I saw her work.

But like I said where were all of you whining Diana was "too dark" to play Holiday. Pretty much nowhere.

Maybe Hollywood will go back to casting white girls in dark make up i.e. Ava Gardner in Showboat, Jeanne Crain in Pinky or Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life (and by the way she was half Mexican) then you'll really have something to bitch about.

I wonder what all of you whiners would do if white's started petitions to stop black actresses from play non specific ethic roles that clearly would have been played by white women in the old days. You'd cry RACISM till you were hoarse.

So deal people another black actresses got a plumb part and she's not playing a prostitute or a maid.

Keep you own insecurities to yourself.

Tiff J said...

@Anonymous: As the Christians say... Bless your poor little heart.

Firstly, your comment is "ridiculous"... and rich, considering you posted it *anonymously*, par for the course.

You’re not obviously a Black person... or at least you're a person who operates within the tenets of White Supremacy, so you've no clue from what place the disappointment about the casting stems from nor do you understand the mechanics of Colorism and Shadeism... OBVIOUSLY, so I'll try to keep this as short as possible Anonymous... but it'll prob still be a lengthy answer.
Anybody who KNOWS anything about Nina's life and advocacy against racism and colorism understands that an AFRO-LATINA (or any multi-racial actress Black identified actress) that's LIGHTER than NINA was, being cast to play her is egregious and an obvious attempt to water down her Afro-centric image to placate White audiences and to garner funding/make money.
NINA SIMONE wasn't a fictional character; she was a VERY REAL PERSON who advocated against colorism, HER marginalization, and racism.
The casting coupled with the fact that Cynthia Mort has opted to tell an INACCURATE story about her love life are beyond ridiculous. Why evoke Nina's name only to dishonor her legacy?

I suppose you think Nina's daughter (who disagrees with the casting as well) is insecure too? o_O Chalking this up to perceived insecurity is classic gas-lighting.

And not for nothing, but White folks DID and DO get up-in-arms when their beloved FICTIONAL characters aren't cast the way they see fit. Do "Hunger Games" and "Thor" ring any bells?

You obviously have no clue about Nina's life and legacy. Only RACIST people resort to oppressive silencing by telling marginalized folks to "get over" their marginalization and to stop demanding to be counted...

Tiff J said...

@Anonymous ... As far as my absence during the making of “Imitation of Life”, that movie was made in 1934 and then again in 1959. I was born in 1977, so I wasn’t fertilized sperm yet. The movie recounted the (FICTIONAL) life of a “tragic mulatto” woman trying to pass for White, so filmmakers finding a fairer-skinned actress that FIT that image made sense to me. They didn’t cast a darker-skinned actress to portray a biracial woman trying to pass for White; makes sense? Okay, good.
As far as “Lady Sings the Blues”, once again, that movie was made in 1972… not born yet, so obviously “where were you then?” doesn’t apply. But I did see it much later and thought (and still think) it was miscast, once I had some semblance of an understanding of how the filmmaking industry works, as far as how they cast Black actresses and WHY they do it the way they do. In fact, while Diana got an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Billie Holiday, that film DID in fact draw heavy criticism and was regarded as the “worst piece of miscasting in cinema history”, and now that many of us are OLD ENOUGH to understand the impact of the entertainment industry’s flagrant colorism and erasure of the Black female aesthetic (if it’s too “Afro-centric”), we can have these discussions and dissect WHY and then WHAT we can do to change it... working towards creating our own infrastructures to tell our own stories is a start. This is why pioneering independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux started the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and started making what was known as “race films”… because he wanted to see Black folks’ lives depicted ACCURATELY.
And while we should work towards telling our own stories, this still doesn't mean that we shouldn't hold the filmmaking industry accountable for their white/light-washing of Black actresses as REPRESENTATIVES of the Black female aesthetic.

THIS unauthorized "biopic" is being cast in 2012... not 1934, 1972, or 1959! And it is being written by a White TV and film writer who is seemingly bent on telling someone’s story the way SHE and studio heads want to see it told.
And since you seem clueless as all get out, you can take an entire stadium full of seats, with your misguided comments and ridiculous derail. When Hollywood picks a non-Caucasian/or darker hued actress to depict Marilyn Monroe’s life, then I'll "get over it"... In the meantime, I suggest you "get over" the fact that these discussions will CONTINUE to unfold amongst Black people and people of color who understand the mechanics of shadeism/colorism and are constantly working to quell that aspect of White Supremacy. While you’re sitting in that stadium full of seats, I suggest you do research on Nina Simone’s life, Google Colorism in Hollywood and look up “Imaging Blackness” and have a good day

Anonymous said...

I am a woman of color, as well as an alumna of the illustrious Spelman College. It is my duty to encourage and support our beautiful black women in all their richness of which God has diversely created. Ms. Saldana is a wonderful young actress, but I do believe that a woman such as Nina Simone that has held her glorious dark chocolate face high in spite of her oppressors should be represented with an African-American woman bearing her likeness. Sometimes the outside world does not comprehend the degree of elegance and intellect that a woman with a face so brown and hips so round possesses. With that said I charge all of my beautiful black sisters, brothers, and even my extended family of other ethnicities to understand this petition, support it and spread the good word about it.

Anonymous said...

Did anybody complain when Beyonce, a dark woman portrayed Etta James, a light colored woman?

Smells like double standard here.

Tiff J said...

First of all ANONYMOUS 10:42AM, Beyonce is a light-skinned [and/or multiracial] Black woman and not that much darker than Etta James was.
Secondly, what does Etta James and Beyonce have to do with Nina Simone's life being portrayed INACCURATELY by an Afro-Latina actress made up in BLACKFACE to supposedly look like her?

Did Etta James's legacy include her being vocal about colorism? Did Etta James have to endure criticism for being too dark? Was Etta or her family flagrantly SHUT OUT of decisions pertaining to her portrayal and likeness? Etta WAS ALIVE when Beyonce portrayed her (briefly) in Cadillac Records. Cadillac Records wasn't an ETTA JAMES movie. Cadillac Records has ZERO to do with what's been written in this blog post on Aug.17th, 2012.

That you fixed your fingers to type that ridiculous DERAIL illustrates that you didn't fully comprehend what's been laid out here and you obviously haven't read her daughter Simone Kelly's thoughts about the filmmakers' inaccurate portrayal of her mother's life.

I'm done talking about this movie and am especially done explaining my stance against myopic arguments. Good day.

Tiff J said...

@Anonymous 8:52,

Thank you for your insight. Unfortunately, the production of this movie will carry on with or without a petition, as is, because the filmmaker and producers have secured the funding to do so, and could care less that a petition is circulating. An unfortunate but sobering fact. It def. shouldn't dissuade folks from voicing their displeasure, however. Hopefully the outrage will prompt us creatives to CREATE. Build our own infrastructures, write scripts, secure funding, and make our own movies about our heroines and legends. Directors and screenwriters/filmmakers/TV writers like Ava DuVernay, Kasi Lemons, and Shonda Rhimes def. are laying the groundwork and serving as excellent models for us to aspire to. We should also aim to support and check out movements like African American Film Festival Releasing Movement.

D.W. said...

Hello and thanks for this outstanding critical revue - have only read three articles so far but bookmarking is golden. The mention of CR in an old copy of the NYT - just found at my local café - has led me here. The story was of course about the disturbing choice of Ms.Saldana to play such an icon of uncompromising values as Nina Simone. As with most critics I have heard from, I have no doubts of ZS' acting, but I would more likely agree if she was cast to play Eartha Kitt. As for those arguing 'get over it' etc... well, I recognize my consciousness as a white male (and Canadian) in this culture doesn't give me any license to make such an argument. Insofar as I can see, it is a sustained ignorance of -and impatience with- the living history of racial consequences that seems to make this poor argument ...attractive? It's obviously not Hollywood alone that makes such blithe decisions about visible race. We're just glimpsing the outcome of a bizarre kind of job interview, no? I can imagine someone in casting saying "Black, but not TOO black, if you know what I mean" - and reducing visible identity is itself a method of revising history, for a biopic of a figure such as Nina Simone, most of all. I look forward to learning more from the voices I might find here, discussing this and any other matter. For now, to.out.myself, make some respectful observations - and give thanks for this forum - is probably enough of me. David.

Tiff J said...


Glad you found Coffee Rhetoric and offered your feedback.

re: "As for those arguing 'get over it..."
--Generally people who've benefited from privilege and don't have to deal with issues likes racism, colorism, and erasure tell marginalized groups to "get over it" it's just their way of trying to oppressively silence the voices of those of us who are qualified to speak about their lived experiences and are unapologetic about not allowing others to speak over us; because then they're forced to have to unpack their privilege and check their oppressive behavior, but I digress.

I'm hoping the politics surrounding this film helps prompt up-and-coming Black filmmakers, screenwriters, and producers to work towards contributing to film and media infrastructures, so we can create content for us, by us, about us. Something not unlike what the Nollywood film industry (in Nigeria)has done for themselves. I've come to the sobering realization that we shouldn't always expect the Cynthia Morts, Jimmy Iovines, or Steven Spielbergs of the industry to recreate and tell stories about our history and lives. *We* have to do it the way we want to see it done.

Thanks for commenting and look forward to more insight!

Tiff J said...

P.S. -- Would like to stress that while creating is good; we still should never stop holding the industry, media, and society in general accountable for racism, colorism, and every other 'ism that marginalizes and attempts to erase women of color and tell them they aren't good enough because they're "too dark" or because their features aren't palatable enough.

jerseytjej said...

Those words...You killed it, Tiff.If I had half your writing ability, that post there...EXACTLY what I mean and feel.

Tiff J said...

@jerseytjej: Aw shucks! Thank you so much for the vote of confidence. Even though I've vowed not to expend anymore energy on this ridiculous project, it doesn't make it or the circumstances surrounding the process, an less problematic; so I still, def, feel 'some kind of way' about the casting process and blackface.