Many people around the world celebrated upon hearing the news that writer/director Cynthia Mort was making a biopic inspired by the life of legendary jazz singer and activist Nina Simone. The celebration quickly turned to disappointment, sadness and outright anger when it was announced that Simone’s character would be played by actress Zoë Saldana. The primary reason for the change in sentiment is the fact that Saldana, a light-skinned Afro-Latina with European features, looks nothing like Simone.
Of course, an actor doesn’t have to actually look like a person to portray him or her. Jamie Foxx and Ray Charles don’t actually favor each other, and no one would ever con- fuse Angela Bassett with Tina Turner in real life. But those actors managed to capture the essence of their characters, the thing that made them worth capturing in the first place: Ray Charles’ tortured genius; Tina Turner’s quiet strength.
In the case of Simone, much of her legacy is tied to her appearance. In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s when Blacks were straightening their hair and bleaching their skin, Simone had the courage to fully embrace her beautiful dark skin, kinky hair, full lips and wide nose without apology. Simone’s mind, body and spirit were a fierce challenge to the logic of White supremacy. Even her music, embodied in classic songs such as “Images” or “Four Women,” was a courageous testimony of life in a body hated by Whites and Blacks because it was the wrong gender and the wrong color.
Simone was a figure of hope and possibility to generations of women who were told that their faces were too dark, their noses too wide and their hair too nappy to be considered beautiful.
But even if Saldana manages to look like Simone, it still leaves another question: Why not just hire a dark-skinned actress? Surely, this is what Simone would have wanted. Before her death in 2003 at age 70, the singer herself said that she wanted Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg to play her in the movie. This wasn’t just because of Goldberg’s talent, but because she actually had features similar to Simone’s. In addition to Goldberg, an entirely new generation of artists such as Tony Award- winning- and Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis, actress Adepero Oduye, or singers Lauryn Hill or India.Arie could have played Simone. There is no greater evidence of how tragic things are for dark-skinned women in Hollywood than the fact that they can’t even get hired to play dark-skinned women.
This is not a slight against Saldana, an incredibly beautiful and gifted actress in her own right. This is also not a dismissal of the plight of light-skinned sisters, who have not been shielded from the pain and trauma of racism and colorism in this country.
This is about defending the character of Simone’s story and the integrity of her memory. This is about holding Hollywood accountable for the stories it tells and holding ourselves accountable for the stories we allow to be told. Most important, this is about honoring a woman who once proudly declared, “I’ve never changed my hair. I’ve never changed my color, I have always been proud of myself, and my fans are proud of me for remaining the way I’ve always been.” If only Hollywood had the same respect for Simone that she had for herself.