This is Nina Simone. This is Nina Simone's black face. Nina Simone, the legendary vocalists whose musical stylings straddled a broad range of genres. Nina Simone, whose vocal complexity captured the ingrained pain of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. She was singularly enigmatic and no element of her being can be neglected if you are trying to tell her story. Least of all, that skin.
That skin that she lived in has become a subject of controversy recently as a soon to be released film entitled Nina is due out later this week. The title role is played by Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek Into Darkness), a well-respected actress with an undeniably beautiful face. The problem is that that face isn't representative of Nina's without darkened skin and a prosthetic nose.
When a biopic is made, filmmakers usually try to get as close as they can to the important stuff and make up the rest as they go. This works. Height, for instance, is something filmmakers could get away with faking using camera tricks. Age is routinely faked, with older actors playing younger and vice versa. But skin color, something that so pervades every interaction a person has, is a dicier subject. And for Nina Simone, it should have been treated as sacrosanct.
Nina's lyrics moved a generation. Classics like "Mississippi Goddam" and "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" mean a great deal to so many people. She memorialized the feelings associated with having that skin with lyrics like these from a 1966 song called "Four Women":
My skin is brown, My manner is tough;
I'll kill the first mother I see, My life has been too rough;
I'm awfully bitter these days, Because my parents were slaves.
These aren't the lyrics of someone who sought to manage a condition; this is someone who sought to exude it. Every lyric oozed with her experiences. So casting an actress that doesn't embody that same experience is an injustice to Ms. Simone's legacy. Britt Julious of Pitchfork writes, "To deny an actress who is both capable and physically perfect for the role of Nina Simone is to deny the very viability of dark black womanhood that Simone embodied." Are actresses like Viola Davis and Uzo Aduba somehow unfit for the roles that match their look?
Beyond the injustice done to Ms. Simone's legacy, Hollywood's already checkered past receives yet another black mark. Just this week, two other movies have come under fire for their insensitive casting choices. Hollywood is all too comfortable simulating or just erasing what is a very real part of people's experiences. Instead of giving opportunities to the actors and actresses who fit the role, Hollywood lazily relies on what is "safe" at the expense of what is right.
Some argue that Saldana's star power is needed to tell Nina's story and that because she is at least partially of African descent, that this is different from the actors of yesteryear who performed in blackface. But is it actually different? Blackface has a long and complicated history in this country, but was essentially used by white actors to mock black people at a time when white audiences wouldn't dream of taking a black actor seriously. If darker-skinned actresses still aren't deemed fit to play the roles they are uniquely suited for, have we really come that far?
Ms. Simone's voice was a gift to the world, so what she chose to say with it should matter. Her lyrics drip with black pride and not just in the political sense, but also pride in a black body. Pride in her darkness and a righteous embrace of the struggle that often came with that. To only simulate, rather than truly capture, that which Nina took pride in, is to dishonor her rich legacy.
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