Zoe Saldana has some choice words for critics of her role in the Nina Simone Biopic. Criticisms have been flying around since 2012 when it was first revealed that Salanda would be playing the legendary singer. When the movie trailer dropped a few months ago, the internet responded with collective outrage. Her acting abilities aside, Saldana’s use of dark makeup and a prosthetic nose in her portrayal of Simone was more than many of us could bear. Producers of the film, however, stand by their casting decision. “The most important thing,” said Robert Johnson, one of the producers of Nina, “is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.” This rationale, of course, is absurd. The producers clearly felt Simone’s story could not be told by someone who didn’t like her, which is why Saldana was forced to undergo hours of makeup to play the role. Her looks mattered. In an excerpt from her personal diaries, Simone herself once wrote,
I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise.
Therefore despite Johnson’s claims that looks don’t matter, we have to accept Saldana’s makeup and prosthetic nose as admission that “ethnicity“and “physical likeness” were important in the telling of this story. It then, of course, begs the question: Why not cast someone who looks like Nina Simone?
We are being told that Nina Simone’s face bears no real import on the new eponymous movie about her life, starring Zoe Saldana…This is obviously false. Saldana could be the greatest thespian of her time, but no one would consider casting her as Marilyn Monroe. Indeed Nina’s producers have gone to great ends—tragicomic ends—to invoke Nina Simone’s face, darkening Saldana’s skin, adorning her with prosthetics…There is something deeply shameful in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.
Zoe Saldana, however, seems resolved to believe that her “blackness” is what’s being questioned. In the most recent issue of Allure magazine, she had this to say:
“There’s no one way to be black…“I’m black the way I know how to be. You have no idea who I am. I am black. I’m raising black men. Don’t you ever think you can look at me and address me with such disdain…I never saw her as unattractive. Nina looks like half my family…But if you think the [prosthetic] nose I wore was unattractive, then maybe you need to ask yourself, What do you consider beautiful? Do you consider a thinner nose beautiful, so the wider you get, the more insulted you become?”
Saldana even credits her acceptance of this role as the reason people now know who Simone is:
“The script probably would still be lying around, going from office to office, agency to agency, and nobody would have done it. Female stories aren’t relevant enough, especially a black female story…I made a choice…Whatever consequences this may bring about, my casting is nothing in comparison to the fact that this story must be told…The fact that we’re talking about her, that Nina Simone is trending? We fucking won..For so many years, nobody knew who the fuck she was.”
Saldana’s willful ignorance of how colorism was at play in the casting of this role adds insult to injury. An insult Nina Simone’s Estate manager, Aaron Overfield, chose not take lying down. He wrote:
Of course Zoe is free to define her own Blackness however she sees fit. She’s not free to make Nina’s Blackness about her, thereby marginalizing and minimizing Nina in the same way Nina was marginalized and minimized her entire life. And perhaps because — as she herself has stated in the past — Zoe chooses to be colorblind and to run away from discussions of race and ethnicity, Zoe is unable to distinguish the difference between some people claiming that she’s not “Black enough” from others of us that are saying: NINA’S BLACKNESS MATTERS. There is such a world of difference between those two perspectives that it might make one wonder why someone incapable of differentiating the two would be involved in making a Nina Simone biopic.
He also pushed back against the notion that it was Saldana who brought Simone to public consciousness, or her story to the silver screen;
“Zoe, you are a fucking lie. You didn’t win shit. We are undoing the damage you have done. We are working overtime to get the narrative out there for those people who had never heard of Nina or that didn’t yet know who Nina really was: a beautiful, strong, proud, genius Black “reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen” (as Nina often reminded us).
The film in which you participated is not #1 in a series of films. First of all, that film doesn’t fucking count. Second, no more films need to be made. Between “Nina Simone: La légende” (by Frank Lords, 1992), “Nina: An Historical Perspective” (by Peter Rodis, 1970), “The Amazing Nina Simone” (by Jeff Lieberman, 2015), and the final capstone to Nina’s legacy: “What Happened, Nina Simone?” (by Liz Garbus, 2015), Nina’s story has been told.”
In the past Saldana has admitted that she was wrong for the role, so this newly defensive stance is both surprising and disappointing.