Zoe as Nina and the Failure of Hollywood Imagination

I was reading this article from Shadow and Act and it made me think about something I’ve had a problem with for a while: the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. Zoe says in response to criticism:

“I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either… An artist is colorless, genderless… It’s more complex than just ‘Oh, you chose the Halle Berry look-alike to play a dark, strikingly beautiful, iconic black woman.’ The truth is, they chose an artist who was willing to sacrifice herself. We needed to tell her story because she deserves it.”

(emphasis above mine)

I think Saldana is a decent actress and don’t have any problems with her personally. Despite this being my second article in two weeks about Nina Simone, I’m not a fanboy either; in my Swiss cheese relationship with music, Nina’s discography is one of the larger holes. What I see in her casting though is a tone deafness, a biography team that learned the whole story but wasn’t paying attention.

While I would have been really excited to see Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead and Adenike from Mother of George) in this role, I agree with Saldana when she says that it’s more complex than skin tone.  Throwing in some other mediocre actress who looked more the part would be equally problematic. However, if you look at who Nina Simone was, it’s important to recall her struggle with self-love in a world that said that dark was not beautiful, and her later speaking with an increasingly militant voice encouraging other black folks to love themselves as well. I think choosing someone who does not physically look like Nina Simone, particularly in complexion, is an insult to that particular legacy, and I have a problem with that in a way that I might not have for someone doing a biopic of, say, Donny Hathaway.

I understand that they wanted to make money and find an actress that already has appeal and will have “box office draw”. However, I see actors and actresses we’ve never heard of being elevated again and again by Hollywood until they stick, and I don’t see why we can’t find some talented dark-skinned, Nina-Simone-looking ingenue to do the same with for this role. I find it interesting as well, that movie casting teams can use their imagination to stretch a Zoe Saldana into playing Nina Simone (or for that matter Angelina Jolie as a multiethnic French woman) but they can’t imagine black lead dramatic characters in a mainstream movie. David Oyelowo, who is cast in the Simone biopic as one of her managers, stated in an interview once that when he was cast as a lead in one particular film and told his family about the new role, his young son asked him, “are you the main character’s friend?” He asked that because he had unconsciously internalized this belief that a black character doesn’t get to lead. That comment from an actor’s own son shows what a failure of imagination costs us, in lowered expectations, and down the road, in lowered achievement.

We owe it to our children, especially children from historically marginalized groups, to be imaginative. We say we’re post-racial and we live in a society where people are up in arms about the blackness (and in some cases, even the proposed blackness) of fictional characters, because even in a fantasy world with magic and bizarre creatures, we can’t imagine non-white people having roles of any importance. (Apologies to the article I cribbed that observation from, the name of which escapes me at this time but may have been over at Very Smart Brothas). If you think this is hyperbole, try performing a racial version of the Bechdel test on the next drama you watch. My proposed rules:

  1. There must be two black characters (okay, fine, even just one),
  2. who aren’t related to each other (if there are two),
  3. who have a function in their communication other than helping the white lead character on their journey or providing comic relief,
  4. [Edit courtesy of my man Damon Young‘s suggestion] and the movie is not primarily about race or “blackness”

You’ll be surprised at how many movies fail.

This isn’t really about Zoe’s fitness to play Nina, physically or as an actress. This is about our collective imagination being so weak, we can never find enough diverse talent out there, but can always find another slender, pretty white woman or handsome, wiry white guy to be the Next Big Thing.

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