When the big news was announced last week that Zoe Saldana would be playing singer Nina Simone in a biopic, black cyberspace (yes, there is a “black Twitter” and a “black Facebook”) let out a collective “Oh, hell to the naw”!
For some it was because they did not believe that Zoe had enough acting talent to pull it off. Nina Simone was an extremely complex woman in real life, and the actress assigned to do this would be embarking upon the role of a lifetime. For others, the statements ranged from “Can Zoe even sing?” to “Wait, I thought she said she was a Latina?” to “Zoe is too skinny to play Nina Simone anyway!”
As the debate continued, it became clear to me that the issues surrounding the casting of Zoe ran much deeper than her acting ability. It was “skin deep.” Once again we were seeing an example of how Hollywood just doesn’t understand black women. To mainstream America, Black is “one color fits all.” But to African-American women, the color of our skin is much more than a random hue. In many ways, it uniquely shapes who we are and how we are treated in the world. For us, body image and self-esteem does not only involve loving your womanly body for the shape of it, but also embracing your complexion, hair texture and other features in a culture that constantly reminds you that thin white women are the standard of beauty.
I must admit that I too was thrown off by this casting choice. Nina Simone’s distinct black features are what made her beautiful and unique, just as much as her musical genius. While I do love Zoe and think that she is a beautifully talented actress who is breaking down barriers for women of color every day, I do not think she is the right woman for this role.
But, not every black woman agrees on this issue, and many feel that shunning Zoe is colorism in all it’s shameful glory and more about “self-hate” than anything else. And while I understand their stance, I think it’s fair to say that in this story, in Nina Simone’s story, skin color does count. I would feel the same way if I turned on BET and heard: “Coming up next, the Lena Horne Story starring Gabby Sidibe” or “Mariah Carey’s one-woman show starring Whoopi Goldberg.”
I am not suggesting that we have a “Paper Bag Test” at auditions and I am not “colorstruck” by any means. But being “post-racial” should not mean that the many hues that make up black America should be ignored. Often times we complain that the love interest is always lighter skinned, while the maid is usually brown or dark skinned. Here we have a chance to celebrate a darker skinned woman, and I think it’s about time that we get it right.
Seems like Hollywood wants to tell our stories, but doesn’t really want us involved at all. Now that it’s rumored that Angelina Jolie is playing Cleopatra, I guess next we’ll see Channing Tatum starring as Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. in “Eyes on The Prize Part II: Magic Mike And The Dry Hump That Saved Selma.”
Since the producers of the Nina Simone story obviously need a little help with casting, here are my top 10 choices of actresses that can pull off this role!
If not Zoe Saldana, then who?
- Macy Gray
- Viola Davis
- Tchina Arnold
- Kim Wayans
- Regina King
- Jill Scott
- Rutina Wesley
- Tika Sumpter
- Kimberly Elise
- Anika Noni Rose
- Kerry Washington