Coffee Rhetoric: Yet More Thoughts About My Nina Simone Post

September 16, 2012

Yet More Thoughts About My Nina Simone Post

Since weighing in about the controversial casting of Zoe Saldana, in the upcoming Nina Simone biopic, several blogs and media platforms have picked up on my blog piece regarding the matter and especially since my comments in Tanzina Vega's New York Times piece. There've been a couple of misconceptions, so I feel as if I need to offer some clarity as well as reiterate my stance on the matter...

First and most important, I actually was not the first person to broach this topic, as was suggested on one popular celebrity gossip blog. The Black independent film website, Shadow and Act was the first to present the information about the movie. The site's creator, Tambay A. Obenson initially made mention of the project in April, and he's been keeping tabs on the Nina Simone biopic since then, announcing and confirming in August that Zoe, was indeed, slated to play the title role. With that confirmation intact, I merely contributed my two cents, via a blog post, about the matter. I also did not circulate or start the petition to get Zoe Saldana removed from the project. In fact, a thorough read of my initial blog post, touches on the reasons why Zoe being cast as Nina Simone, are problematic. I never wrote that she wasn’t “Black enough”, I never mentioned her complexion, nor did I question her race. I said she didn’t share Nina’s phenotype. Nina Simone was a vigilant, unapologetic, mercurial, and amazing force, presented in a package that often isn’t preferred in the entertainment industry. 

For those folks who insist that this inaccurate depiction of Nina’s life isn't an example of erasure or industry light-washing of the Black female aesthetic, and suggest that people are simply taking spiteful, stan-like digs at Zoe Saldana, miss the point completely. This is a systemic problem that's been rampant in Hollywood, the film making industry, and the overall media for far too long.

Media and entertainment machines continuously force-feed images of the Black women they consider to be acceptable enough to present to the mainstream. And while I agree wholeheartedly with those points suggesting that Black film-making and media industries need to continue to work towards creating infrastructures that relay our own stories, and that Black audiences need to support those efforts in droves, Hollywood and the media in general still should be held accountable for the covert disdain they seem to harbor for the "Afrocentric" aesthetic, and these conversations still need to be had. 

Zoe's race or acting fortitude is not the core issue. Moreover, Black Americans are aware that the African Diaspora spans the spectrum and includes Afro-Latinos, but it still doesn't negate the fact that Zoe doesn't share Nina's phenotype, and neither did Mary J. Blige (who was originally tapped to play the role), for that matter. The look is equally as important as the contents of the script, because Colorism is an issue that Nina fought against.

Black actresses have a difficult enough time navigating the politics of the film industry, so when those who have darker-skin are pitted against bi-/multi-racial/racially ambiguous actresses who can "pass" for Black, to whom they lose plum roles, they continue to be cast in parts that relay narratives about Black female pathology: maids, the sassy invisible Black friend of some desired other actress, or the hyper-sexual ghetto queen as illustrated in the controversial Dutch film Alleen maar nette Mensen-- "Only Decent People" [adapted from writer Robert Vuijse's book]. 

Viola Davis spoke of the difficulties Black actresses face in Hollywood, during Newsweek's Oscar roundtable discussion, but was dismissed as not being secure in her "hotness", as Black women sharing their stories of invisibility often are. 


I've read arguments citing Thor and Hunger Games as examples of why Zoe cast as Nina Simone should suffice, since it somehow makes up for Idris Elba playing a Norse God. Nina wasn't some mythological character; she was a very REAL person who dealt with very REAL problems... racism and Colorism chief among them.

To lead stories and blog posts with "People Think Zoe Saldana Isn't Black Enough and want her fired!" derails from the crux of the matter, because essentially and once again, it’s not about Zoe, Zoe's  race, or her acting abilities; in fact, it isn't even about light-skinned Black women vs dark-skinned Black women... an angle I believe media platforms are trying to stoke the flames of, for traffic. It's about the attempted erasure of a subset of Black women in the media, doing right by NINA and her legacy, and explaining exactly why it was important to offer the right actress the opportunity to evoke her legacy. 

Related Articles