‘Nina’, Starring Zoe Saldana and Your Misdirected Frustration

By now you have probably heard the angry murmurs, seen the zillions of articles and watched the trailer for the upcoming biopic of Nina Simone starring Zoe Saldana. Yes, that’s right…Zoe Saldana, in all of her Puerto Rican and Dominican glory.

I am disappointed.

But not for the reason you may think. I’m disappointed because at this point I know we, people of color, are so far removed from a true, inclusive, utopia. I’m disappointed because I feel like we are living on a racial minefield and have to be careful and tread lightly on any matter, even within the confines of the black community, because it always comes back to the color of our skin. Now that the politics have crossed into the art world, a territory I once thought was reserved for freedom of expression; I don’t see true freedom happening in my lifetime.

From the moment this project surfaced some years ago, a colorism conversation has been brewing within the black community. You know, that conversation where black people determine a fellow black person’s “blackness” based on the amount of melanin in their skin or the texture of their hair. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well that’s because it is. Here we are…in 2016, still divided by the house and the field. I get it. Charge it to our collective heads and not our hearts, right? We are all just trying to understand and rehabilitate ourselves from institutionalized racism. A system that has fooled us into fighting ourselves and adopting these same twisted mentalities of hierarchy and segregation.

Zoe Saldana has intersecting cultural identities and at the end of the day is a black woman. Now that that’s established, can we just stop this rhetoric that she is not “black enough”? I mean really, what constitutes being “black enough”? I’m already tired of this conversation that we’ve never had. How about we reserve our critique of Saldana’s performance as Nina Simone for her acting chops and not her skin? That’s what I plan to do. Does Zoe Saldana look like Nina Simone? No, she’s doesn’t. The production crew of this project had two options; either allow Zoe to remain as herself with no resemblance to Nina or try to make her look more like Nina. They went with the latter and in hindsight, it clearly was the wrong call.

I have no reason to lie to you. My thoughts went exactly as follows as I watched the trailer. “Oh hey wow, David Oyelowo! I like him. There’s Zoe on the keys…okay. Let’s get it Zoe! Wait, Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?” Around 19 seconds into the trailer, when I saw what looked like a paper mache face flash across my screen, I fell into a fit of laughter after a sound similar to what a subwoofer would make, escaped my lips. The cake-y makeup was unsettling, confusing, and quite distracting from whatever words were being uttered. Once I moved beyond the initial shock of the makeup, I had more important questions like why such a heavy emphasis on Nina’s relationship with Clifton Henderson? I heard Zoe trying to match her speaking cadence to that of Nina Simone. I peeped the body language which I appreciated. I refuse to question her decision to portray a woman she admired or to question her acting abilities.

In my opinion, it was just a terribly executed makeup job. Perhaps they couldn’t get their hands on the same shades that Forest Whittaker and Kerry Washington used in ‘Last King of Scotland.’ Yeah…that’s right…this isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, playing a character who looks nothing like you is nothing new. Remember when Denzel Washington played Malcolm X? All they did was throw some glasses on him. Remember when Jamie Foxx played Ray Charles? All they did was throw some shades on him. And those were two of the most brilliant performances. The chronological inconsistency of the makeup they provided Zoe with makes me wish they just didn’t attempt to liken them at all.

Could they have cast Uzo Aduba, Viola Davis, Lupita N’yongo, India Arie, or Lauryn Hill to play Nina? Sure they could have. Do they look exactly like Nina Simone? No, they don’t. Each individual including Nina has her own unique set of features and those differences should be celebrated. The common thread between those actresses is that they have darker skin. You couldn’t tell me growing up that I didn’t qualify to play Annie, Selena, Mulan or Jean Valjean solely because my skin is as dark as a planet without a Sun. Is Terrence Howard more qualified to play Barack Obama than Denzel Washington because of his skin tone? Come on now. Let’s do better. Actors, act. If creative license disturbs you, feel free to watch the incredible documentary on Netflix titled, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Or write a new script and cast whomever you choose.

I could go on but I’ll stop right here in hopes that people stop attacking Zoe for her choice of seizing the opportunity of a lifetime. Your frustrations are misdirected. I don’t doubt Zoe’s ability to play any character she sets her mind to. Critique the inaccuracies of the script. Critique the creative department. Don’t critique Zoe on her level of “blackness”.