When I read about Zoë Saldana being cast as Nina Simone, I heard about everything in a barrage of e-mail, text messages, articles and blogs, and it was overwhelming. There were questions about what I thought about it as a casting director. Singer India.Arie wrote on Simone’s official Web site that she thought the early images of Zoë as Nina were “ridiculous.”
What Hollywood does is create templates. Sometimes they’re brilliant, beautiful and accurate portrayals and, as a casting director, I’ve worked on a number of those. I worked on [the casting of] Notorious, which was a brilliant portrayal. The director wanted authenticity and looked to me to bring that. We shouldn’t be looking to a fictitious film to be a documentary of a particular person. We had Denzel playing Malcolm X; were we mad then because Malcolm had green eyes, light skin and red hair? Denzel doesn’t look like that, but his performance was utterly transcendent.
Zoë being cast in this movie is the reason that it got financing in the first place. After Mary J. Blige had to drop out due to scheduling issues, another person was needed to replace her, another actress, and Zoë is that person right now. She’s very visible: We’ve seen her acting in films including Center Stage, Guess Who, Star Trek, Avatar and Colombiana. And she now has or has had endorsement deals with LensCrafters, AVON and Calvin Klein, and she graces major magazine covers. Because of that, she has a built-in audience, a plus for studio executives. And she’s a brilliant actress. But here’s my question: What is it about the project or Zoë or the film that is really upsetting people so much? There are a lot of “thems” and “theys” and “Hollywoods” in this broad- stroke conversation, as if there’s some kind of person behind a big, closed door who pushes all of these buttons and creates all these images and makes all these things happen.
The casting process is just that: a process. Sometimes actors audition, sometimes we make a list of actors we have in mind for a role. When actors audition, they come in to embody the character— they’ve read the script, they’ve done their research, they’ve worked with their acting coaches. As a casting director, I put it on tape for the director and studio execs, and they watch it to help them decide whom to cast. It isn’t just one person’s thing— “This is what I want; this is how I see the world, so this is what we’re putting out.”
Everything I’m reading has to do with complexion, and that comes from us. We are obsessed with complexion in our culture and our history, and we need to be clear that Black is more than just African-American. Black people are everywhere. There’s an African Diaspora. We were dropped off in many different countries and places during the slave trade. We are in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Central America and South America, so why are we so upset?
We need to examine that.
We should also know our history. We shouldn’t look to Hollywood to create images that will tell us our history for us; we need to do the research for ourselves. We need to learn our history, the written word, and we need to watch real documentaries.
In the immortal words of the character Dap in Spike Lee’s School Daze: “Wake up.”