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Zoe Saldana is Not The Problem. Why We Hate the Nina Symone Biopic

2 years ago when we heard Ice Cube was making the movie “Straight Outta Compton”, there was a casting call sheet that circulated the interwebs. That casting call list was the criteria for the type of women they were looking to hire, divided in 4 categories, the A, B, C and D girls. The Category goes from the A) classy sophisticated and beautiful women, to D) the women who aren’t so beautiful, out of shape and poor. This criteria seem innocuous enough, until you notice that the one common trait between these women is the gradient of skin tone. From the all races in the A category, to the increasingly dark women for the D category. There, is a box reserves exclusively for the dark skinned black woman.

but why?

This casting call sheet, while shocking and outrageous, wasn’t necessarily surprising for black women; We are familiar with the hierarchy of skin tones, with darker black women  sitting at the bottom of the totem pole. This a reality faced by black women in society as well as women in Hollywood, something the late Nina Symone was all too familiar with. A big theme in her life as a black woman is the fact that she was never considered beautiful enough, given her dark skin, big lips and dark nose. Mrs Symone being outpoken about reminding black people being a beautiful people was both an in-your-face declaration, and a mantra to remind us to see beauty in us when everyone wanted to deprive us of our basic humanity.

nina_simone_zoe_saldana_nina_split
image for the Hollywood Reporter

Flash forward to today, we have the unveiling of the Nina Symone trailer as portrayed by Zoe Saldana.  Most of us are in Shock that she actually went through with this  movie despite the backlash she received upon the release of on set photos 2 years ago. We don’t get it.

A lot of people don’t really  understand why we’d be so disappointed by one black woman portraying another black woman.  after all, aren’t we constantly discussing the scarcity of roles for them? But referring back to the Straight Outta Compton casting call and understanding the deep wounds of colorism in the lives of black women (and Indian and East Asian women), context is key here. Zoe Saldana is a lighter skinned woman and she has features that are often considered to be more desirable for black women because they are closer to white women’s features. This is the reason why those types of black women get the (already scarce) black roles more often than darker skinned women.   In that context alone, Zoe being cast to be play Nina Simone is further evidence of the hierarchy of skin hue in Hollywood.

But I think that the deeper issue here, isn’t just Zoe’s skin. The real issue is the legacy of Nina Simone as a woman who was discriminated against because of her darker skin AND big lips and large nose. Expanding on this premise, we continue to see this same discrimination of black women both in Hollywood and in society in general where darker skin and certain features aren’t as valued. Casting a lighter skinned woman who also has thinner nose and lips, defeats the whole point of this biopic and the struggle of Nina. How can we take this biopic seriously when you went and cast a woman who also would likely have been chosen over Nina in her time? So the criticism isn’t really of Zoe herself, but the symbol she represents, cast against the backdrop of Nina’s struggle as a black woman. We have to be able to acknowledge this complexity and understand it’s very real impact on our lives.
I do feel bad for Zoe, because I want to believe she meant well, I want to believe that she really wanted this story to be told, and I’m sure this backlash is not easy for her to endure.

 

But judging from her most recent tweet, I don’t think she understand the criticism,

 

Criticism of her in the role of Nina isn’t some kind of witch hunt of Zoe Saldana, but comes from a deep understanding of the complexity of black skin and the persistence of the brown paper bag test as a measure of our value.  Zoe Saldana in this role is the flashback to the Straight Outta Compton casting call. That dark skinned women aren’t even good enough to play each other on screen, that we can have a movie about a woman who was never good enough due to her particular kind of blackness, and we get this problem reflected back to us again when a light skinned woman is chosen yet again.  How can we trust Zoe to play Nina Simone if already she doesn’t understand her most basic struggle of living as a dark skinned woman? What would Nina say? I think she’d remind us of the struggle of being black, of being dark skinned black,  of constantly being told you’re not good enough. Not good enough to be cast as a classy woman in an Ice Cube Movie, not good enough to be deemed desirable, not good enough to fly high. as Mrs. Simone once sang for us,

So why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain’t ever gonna fly
You ain’t got no one to hold you you ain’t got no one to care
If you’d only understand dear nobody wants you anywhere
So why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain’t ever gonna fly

logo made of a lady stick figure. a circle for the head, slightly bigger circle for the bust, and a bigger half circle for the bottom. on the right it reads "the dearbody project. Do you love you?"

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Dany Isabelle Masado View All

Isabelle Masado writes about body compassion on her blog "The Dear Body Project". She knows all too well that the personal is the political, is the community. As such, there is no discussing body compassion without talking about the assault on black bodies, trans women, and people with disabilities. Her mantra is, "How can I live in a way that makes room for you too"? She writes to examine, to heal, to redeem.

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