Nina Simone’s voice is a prayer. An African ancestral song, a Buddhist chant, a Negro spiritual with codes and keys to freedom. Nina’s life (and what a life it was) is both a cautionary tale and a beautiful aide-mémoire of what it means to be unapologetically Black.
And we know that Blackness means so many things. Of course we consider Blackness a word that denotes race and ethnicity, culture, and a way of thinking. But Blackness is also an aesthetic; it’s how we are seen in relation to how others see us, and what the fight to be seen represents.
All of this, all of this, is why the newly released trailer of the supposed biopic Nina (staring Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone) is literally making us sick and leaving us breathless. When I say that watching Saldana play Nina Simone is leaving us breathless, I do not mean in the same way Nina’s voice takes our breath away when she sings “Sinnerman” with such urgent precision, or “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” or “Mississippi Goddamn.” I mean the kind of breathlessness we experience in moments of sacrilege.
It’s true that I have decided that the film Nina, and Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone (no matter how well-meaning), is sacrilegious before I have seen it in full. My argument is based on logic of course: Nina’s family has been against the singer and activists’ portrayal in the film for years now, and Cynthia Mort (who wrote the film) has filed a lawsuit charging she was left out of the decision-making processes that have turned Nina into the disaster we witness in the trailer.
But my larger argument is centered in pathos. It’s about our collective hearts, and more importantly, Nina’s. It begins when Nina was born and named Eunice in small-town North Carolina, after slavery, although the legacy of slavery still had a tight hold on her hometown her family, and her. It continues with the burden placed on Black child genius during a time when Black people were barely viewed as human. It moves further still into how racism, colorism, and Nina’s championing of big-nosed, fat lipped, nappy-headed beauty means more to us than any prosthetic nose and brown face paint can ever properly convey.
My argument against Whites making a film about badass, radical Black women like Nina Simone—and an actress who sometimes identifies as Afro-Latina (but most times claims not to see or understand color) portraying her—is that quite frankly, we cannot afford the luxury of letting another one of our heroes be recast as some gentler, more digestible version of themselves.
I’ve seen online recently (and through the years that we’ve constantly conjured juju to stop this film from making its way to theaters) that images of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone educe painful memories of the blackface minstrel acts made popular in the U.S. during the 19th century, and I agree. To be clear, this recollection of blackface being donned by a Black woman is not a result of refusing to see Afro-Latinas as Black. (But I will say Saldana is an “acceptable” version of an Afro-Latina, much in the same way Halle Berry can be considered an “acceptable” version of an American Black woman—neither actor would produce an adequate portrayal of Nina Simone’s Black aesthetic.) It is an honest critique. There are a number of Black actors who could have effortlessly played Nina. The casting in Nina was intentional, as the casting was intentional in the film Gods of Egypt and countless other films attempting to tell Black stories through anti-Black lenses.
Speaking of actors who could’ve effortlessly and lovingly portrayed Nina Simone in Nina, I believe Lauryn Hill would have expertly captured Nina’s fire, her activism, and her love-hate relationship with the music industry and her fans—not to mention Danai Gurira and many others whose skin would not have had to be darkened to capture a supreme vision of Nina Simone.
Zoe Saldana can love Nina Simone as much as we all do, but love is a verb. Love is justice. Love is being committed to seeing people for who they are. If Saldana loves Nina Simone as much as she claims, she would’ve championed an accurate physical portrayal of Nina in this film. She would have declined the offer to be casted as Nina. Nina Simone’s representation of natural, unwavering Black beauty was intentional and decisive, and we all (even Zoe) owe it to her to honor that representation.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.