50 Shades of Brown: Zoe Saldana Casted As Nina Simone In Upcoming Biopic
Race is not simply a black and white issue; there are shades of brown. So when looking for an actress to depict Nina Simone in the 2013 biopic “Nina”, it came as a shock to many that the lighter-skinned Zoe Saldana was chosen. Criticisms started coming in from everyday folks in the Twitterverse, to online petitioners on Change.org, all the way to Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark… Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.”
Photos of Saldana recently leaked, showing how the star has been “transformed” into the legendary Nina Simone with the help of a wig, prosthetic nose and makeup (which some are referring to as Blackface). The Dominican and Puerto Rican actress may be Afro-Latina but her skin tone and facial features do not favor those of Nina’s. While creative freedom does belong to the director, Cynthia Mort, it is impossible to stay true to Nina Simone’s story if her looks are ignored, which she clearly isn’t trying to do. So why go through all the trouble of making Zoe fit the script if there are talented actresses that wouldn’t need such a transformation? Some have suggested Viola Davis or Kimberly Elise, not only for their looks but for their indisputable talent on screen.
I am a fan of Zoe Saldana and even as a fan, I have to admit that this decision says more about Hollywood’s casting practices than it does about her talent as an actress. There is no doubt that Zoe has had to overcome stereotypes and blocks in Hollywood as a woman of color and of course there is no doubt that she can act her ass off, but what has to be recognized is that she holds a position of privilege over darker-skinned actresses in the eyes of Hollywood, whether she wants to or not. The roles that are made specifically for Black actresses are few and far between and mostly stereotypical, so when a role such as this comes along it is vital to cast the right actress in order to stay true to the story being told. Mia Mask, who wrote “Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film” points out that “For black subject matters — whether political, historical or entertainment figures — there’s so much at stake, because there’s so little opportunity to get these films made.”
Until names such as Viola Davis and Kimberly Elise can stand on their own, without another “mainstream” name attached to it, we will see very little progress. But here’s the conundrum… when will we know this is possible? If a film such as “Nina” doesn’t attempt to star these women but instead goes for the actress that has achieved A-List status but doesn’t resemble the main protagonist, we won’t know. In Hollywood, the bottom-line is the decision-maker. This story may touch upon many layers of race and skin color, but at the end of the day if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense and Hollywood is primarily concerned with securing 50 shades of green by taking the road most traveled.