The story seemed so ludicrous that I easily dismissed it, especially given the earliest reports didn’t specify the exact role actress Zoe Saldana would be playing in the long-delayed Nina Simone biopic. But alas, it seems that Saldana will in fact be portraying the life of singer, songwriter, pianist and activist and not the singer’s daughter. A back and forth has predictably albeit understandably ensued upon the confirmation.
Some have quickly scrutinized the choice of casting largely on the merits of aesthetics. It’s somewhat cringeworthy to hear it explained in the context of “Zoe doesn’t look Black enough,” yet beyond such a provocative statement is a legitimate critique that a fair-skinned, ultra thin, Black actress portraying a woman who was everything but is a bit of a slap in the face to Simone’s legacy – which this movie purportedly seeks to honor.
At the same time, one could make the case that if the people behind the movie initially wanted Mary J. Blige in the role (who reportedly left due to the project’s troubles with financing) perhaps what’s most important to the project’s handlers is a name versus a look.
After all, we do live in a world where Ne-Yo can say he turned down the chance to play Dr. Martin Luther King on the big screen because he didn’t want to gain any extra pounds following the formation of a new physique to coincide with a new album.
That reality allows for another and maybe more credible argument to make against the project.
As much as I adore Mary J. Blige and don’t doubt her claims that she was working hard to deliver a credible performance, didn’t she essentially start the long running joke about this movie among skeptics? All Saldana’s casting does is offer doubters another way to deliver a punch line. And rightfully so, actually, because while Saldana is a decent actress, even if she looked like Nina’s long lost twin she’d still be an odd choice to play the high priestess of soul.
Nina Simone is someone who once argued “Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.”
Meanwhile, Zoe infamously told EBONY magazine last year, “We have a Black president right now. So why the f— would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for Black women in Hollywood when there’s a Black president in my country?”
To get someone with Zoe Saldana’s mentality to portray the likes of Nina Simone on screen is akin to asking Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta’s Joseline Hernandez to play Assata Shakur – and even then I might give the edge to Joseline.
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