Controversy Around Zoe Saldana's Nina Simone Biopic Is Complicated, So Let's Dive In

We talk about race a lot in the United States. It's inescapable — for good reason — unless you bury your head in the sand. It's intense, messy, and convoluted, and it makes a lot of people on every side very upset and very defensive. Throw in the onscreen portrayal of a real-life legend, and things get even more complicated, and even more messy. Which is why we should talk about Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone in the biopic Nina — or more specifically, we should talk about why everyone's talking about it.

The controversy around Saldana's casting as Simone really blew up last year, with the proverbial shit hitting the fan around the time that set photos circulated showing Saldana's makeup and costuming in the film: Skin noticeably darkened, a prosthetic nose, an afro wig. Some of these things aren't at all new, and in other cases they'd be barely controversial: Nicole Kidman, for example, wore a prosthetic nose to portray Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

But once the word "blackface" enters the conversation there's no going back.

The bulk of the debate surrounding the politics of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone took place months ago, but Nina is premiering at the Cannes Film Festival this week, which means in a lot of ways, this conversation's just beginning. So here's what you might have missed.

The main controversy surrounds Saldana's lack of a resemblance to Simone

This isn't about performance. It's about a part of race relations that rarely gets discussed in the black-white dichotomy of how we talk about race issues in this country. It's about skin tone, and to a lesser degree, it's about facial features.

In the broad scope of black skin tones, Zoe Saldana is considered light-skinned. In the broad scope of black skin tones, Nina Simone was relatively dark — the kind of dark she was constantly told growing up was "too black," with the accompanied assertion that her nose was "too wide." As Jezebel's Dodai Stewart pointed out in October 2012:

It's ironic that the singer felt discriminated against, due to her features, and yet instead of hiring a dark-skinned, wide-nosed woman — a type generally overlooked by Hollywood, the light-skinned, slender-nosed, Dominican Saldana was given the role — and she's spend time and money in the makeup chair to look more like Simone. So much work, when the filmmakers could have hired a woman who already resembled the singer.

A whole lot of people have chimed in on the matter

Aretha Franklin on the casting:

I did know Nina and I would have liked to see someone with a little more of a likeness and [who] hopefully played the piano. But I don't know Ms. Saldana's work and Hollywood can do a lot of things in terms of changing your features and all of that.

India Arie was not pleased, publishing an impassioned blog post on NinaSimone.com:

Yes there should be a movie made, and YES they should have chosen someone who LOOKS like Nina Simone, ESPECIALLY since her RACE played such a PIVOTAL role in WHO, WHAT and WHY, she was.

THAT ASIDE for a second, this just looks WEIRD, it looks like a person in Black(er) face with a fake nose … REALLY?!!!!

[...]As hard as Nina had to fight for what she wanted BECAUSE she was black and looked the way she did … THIS looks like a parody. If it has to be FORCED this hard something’s not right!

Simone's daughter, who goes by the name Simone, has publicly stated that the film is unauthorized, also making note of the fact that the film portrays Clifton Henderson as Nina Simone's lover despite his real-life homosexuality.

With the film's Cannes premiere and the release of a still from the film (above), Twitter has taken hold of the debate once more:

There is no taking the politics out of this

One aspect of the situation that's triggered frustration is a relatively simple one: There are a lot of dark-skinned actresses out there searching for work. A lot. It's not a secret to the black community that Hollywood has systematically privileged lighter-skinned black entertainers over those with darker hues — in fact, it happens all over the place — which makes the hiring of one of the former to portray one of the latter feel like both a slap in the face to those darker-skinned actresses struggling to break through and like yet another barrier thrown up within the black community when it comes to lighter-skinned/darker-skinned relations. It's the paper bag test come back to haunt everyone, basically — or just dancing around declaring it never died in the first place.

Zoe Saldana Has A Point, Too

The hullabaloo got so dense last year that Saldana actually responded to it:

Let me tell you, if Elizabeth Taylor can be Cleopatra, I can be Nina — I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it. I will honor and respect my black community because that’s who I am.

And some people, such as Tanya Steele over at IndieWire, are definitely standing by her in the role:

She is saying that she is a black woman and has every right to play Nina. What else does she need to say?! She isn't saying, "I don't have Nina's features so I can't play her." She is saying, I have Nina's features, I am a black woman. And, she said, if Elizabeth Taylor can play Cleopatra, I can play Nina Simone. Yes! Basically, if a white woman can play a black woman, certainly she, as a black woman, can play a black woman.

Some of this conversation is about what constitutes being "black enough," and about the specific type of treatment lighter-skinned black people may get in the black community when it comes to being deemed "worthy" of identifying with the black experience. Every iteration of black has its own struggles.

It All Comes Back To Nina Simone & Her Life

There are, obviously, a number of things that get in the way of people accepting Zoe Saldana in the role of Nina Simone. The one relating most textually to the film itself is that Nina Simone would likely not have been the Nina Simone the world remembers if it hadn't been for her dark skin. It impacted her art in inexorable ways.

Once again, this isn't about Saldana's performance — it's about the audience's willingness to give in to Saldana as Simone, many audience members coming into that theater carrying the full weight of the context and the history the film seems willing to cast off.

To a certain degree their casting of Saldana is understandable: She's one of the biggest-name black actresses out there right now, and it shouldn't be underestimated how thoroughly that name power can control a production's decision-making. Big names come with bigger money, after all. But I wonder: If Lupita Nyong'o — who's talked publicly about the politics of dark skin — had won her Oscar a year or two ago, maybe this entire conversation would be different. Maybe we'd just be talking about her nose.

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Image: Ealing Studios