My sister, Asali, and I met Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul, once. I was 6, Asali was 7, and our zany aunt Yvette “Kinyozi” Smalls had taken us to Temple University to see Simone perform at a free outdoor festival. I don’t remember much about the show besides the soft serve ice cream Yvette permitted us to have and the yellow and brown dashiki my mother had sewn for occasions such as this. But I can recall how Ms. Simone smelled. Delicious! Like some kind of earthy floral mixed with musk and a hint of garlic. And I remember her voice, which was at once proper and warm. By 1980, when my late aunt Yvette took the attached picture, the folk, jazz and soul performer, civil rights activist and expatriate had a reputation for haughtiness, unpredictability and overt coldness toward folks she didn’t know or like. From my little kid’s perspective, however, she looked and acted like any of my other aunties or community members. She had a short, bushy natural like my mom’s; dark brown skin like my family’s; and a familiar set of round cheeks, generous lips and wide eyes. She wore an embroidered African top like a uniform rather than a costume. She called my sister and me, with our natural hair, beads and braids “little precious princesses.” She was a nice lady who made us feel affirmed.
Looking at recent images of actress Zoe Saldana blackened up and wearing a prosthetic nose and a bootleg headwrap to portray Simone in the upcoming, unauthorized biopic “Nina,” I’ve been thinking about the importance of the singer’s physicality. At a time when “Black is beautiful” was a revolutionary concept rather than a marketing campaign, Simone adorned herself with African garb and intricate plaited updos. Sometimes she posed nude. As a songwriter and performer, she created a space for black women to grapple with ideas of beauty, privilege and sexual desirability. In her 1991 autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” she explains this process:
I wrote a song, “Four Women,” which went into these feelings a little. The women in the song are black, but their skin tones range from light to dark and their ideas of beauty and their own importance are deeply influenced by that. All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair–straight, kinky, natural, which?–and what other women thought of them. Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn’t control, and until they had the confidence to define themselves they’d be stuck in the same mess forever…
Given the rich, sharply political source material of Simone’s songs, performances and writings, I think it’s appropriate for journalists, bloggers, academics and commenters to question the casting of Saldana, an extremely thin, light brown skinned woman with relatively narrow facial features, to play Nina Simone. In some cases, fans have gone too far, repeatedly (and falsely) accusing the Puerto Rican and Dominican “Avatar” star of denying her blackness and suggesting that she’s stealing roles from so-called real black actresses.
For the record, I think it’s unfair and silly to say that Saldana can’t play the High Priestess of Soul because her ancestors landed in a different part of the African diaspora. To me, the real issue is that the filmmakers seem to have a sensitivity and style deficit.
Let’s consider their experience: The Simone biopic’s director, Cynthia Mort, is best known for writing for and producing the sitcoms “Rosanne” and “Will & Grace” and for co-writing the underwhelming 2007 Jodie Foster revenge film “The Brave One.” Interscope Records founder Jimmy Iovine, who co-produced the melodramatic Eminem vehicle “8 Mile” and the cheesetastic 50 Cent tale “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” will serve as executive producer.
Mort originally cast Mary J. Blige, a popular singer with medium brown skin, narrow eyes, an aquiline nose—and limited acting skills—to play Simone. When Blige left the production due to scheduling conflicts, Mort tapped Saldana, a serviceable actress “who also looks nothing like the title character.” It is not Zoe Saldana’s fault that Hollywood and mass media prize light skin, straight hair, very thin female bodies and keen facial features. Nor is it Mary J. Blige’s fault that filmmakers continually give movie roles to singers, rappers and television hosts who aren’t strong actors. I get it: Hollywood is about maximum profits and minimum risks. But this is Nina Simone we’re talking about! Hollywood wouldn’t hire Joey Fatone to play Mick Jagger. It wouldn’t cast Octavia Spencer in the role of Lena Horne. But somehow Zoe Saldana gets to play Nina Simone.
It’s an erasure and it’s unforgivable.