Nina Simone is a legendary singer-songwriter whose musical genres ranged from jazz to classical. Her life will be celebrated through Cynthia Mort’s biopic film titled Nina. Often seen sporting an afro, Nina Simone is a symbol of black pride. Her dark skin, conspicuous nose and plump lips were a realistic exhibition of what black beauty looks like.
Cast to portray the musical heroine is the A-list Latin-American actress Zoe Saldana, known for her recent role in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Saldana is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, and has said in many interviews that she identifies as a black woman. The actress has been quoted by the Huffington Post as stating, “It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it, I will honour and respect my black community because that’s who I am.” Saldana has continued to demonstrate nothing but black pride.
But the casting of Saldana has caused a public outcry of criticism, I think mostly unfairly.
Many believe Saldana should not have been cast for the role simply because she is not “black enough.” Indeed, to prepare Saldana for the role, her skin colour and facial features had to be altered. Unfortunately, the actress herself has received harsh criticism for accepting the role. Some believe the Hollywood star should have turned down the opportunity, questioning why someone with similar black features to Nina Simone’s could not have been chosen.
I have to agree and disagree with these controversial claims.
The burden should not fall on any actor or actress to decline work opportunities based on racial privilege. Moreover, Saldana has spoken of the personal significance Simone has for her. The Daily Mail website has quoted the actress saying, “I really wanted it to be a love song to Nina Simone. The movie was more than a job, it was a passion project. I wanted it to just come from a place of absolute love.”
Therefore, to me, we have no right to criticize her on her acceptance of the role. If anyone is to be blamed, it should the director and producers who offered her the position.
Yet when casting for the role, the sole motivation should be finding someone who can capture the essence of Nina Simone. I would like to hope that Saldana’s brand as a young and famous rising star was not the driving force behind the decision to cast her, since in the film industry casting popular movie stars is sometimes just plain good for business.
If a skilled actress like Saldana can embody Simone in both body and mind, why shouldn’t she play the role?
At the same time, however, this also seems like a missed opportunity.
I believe that if an actress who is able to portray a character more organically can be found, they should be sought over a more contrived depiction by a more famous Hollywood name.
There are many unknown actresses that have the ability to play lead roles in blockbuster movies. Lupita Nyong’o is a prime example of this claim. She was largely unknown before her breakout role in Steve McQueen’s, 12 Year’s a Slave, but today she is a household name and an Academy Award winner.
Roles that require black female archetypes are very scarce. It is sad to see opportunities for up-and-coming black actresses being passed elsewhere. I once heard the lyrics to a song that stated, “black is not a colour, it is the core of who we are.” That statement speaks volumes in this situation. The core of the actress playing this role must be true to Simone’s character.
Yet ultimately that’s also why, as long as Saldana completely immerses herself in Simone’s character as the musician, the mother, the activist, and the black woman she was, then I believe the right person for the role was cast – despite ethnicity or skin tone.