This week, the trailer for the oft delayed Nina Simone biopic “Nina,” starring actress Zoe Saldana in the title role, was released. The film has been steeped in controversy and criticism since the announcement that the Dominican-American actress had been cast to play the legend. Critics most notably cite the glaring contrast in Simone’s complexion and features and Saldana’s, a hurdle the film awkwardly attempts to overcome with makeup and a prosthetic nose. Simone’s own daughter noted that her mother “was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” adding, “Zoe Saldana portraying her [Nina Simone] is a bad joke because there are more gifted actresses who are more in keeping with my mother’s appearance.”
That Hollywood is so disinterested in bringing authenticity and dignity to the stories of black people never becomes easier to swallow. That Zoe Saldana, a black woman, would agree to not only play this woman to whom she bares absolutely no resemblance, but agree to don blackface and a fake nose to do so is maddening. But though the physical differences in the two women are the most obvious problem with the casting choice, I am most concerned not with Saldana’s looks, but with her passive-at-best acceptance of her blackness, an attribute which Nina Simone screamed, sang, embraced and loved.
Saldana has proudly claimed her Latina heritage. Acknowledgements of her blackness, though, are clumsy at best, the words “I am black woman” falling from her lips with the grace of an elephant doing ballet, seemingly used solely to defend herself against criticism over playing Simone. Other times, she skates around inquiries into her blackness, seeming insulted to even have questions about her racial heritage posed. For instance, when asked about her intersecting Latina and black identities in an interview with Glamour magazine’s Belleza Latina, the actress replied, “I am proud to be Latina. I will not accept [anyone] telling me that I’m less or whatever, because to me, that is just hysterical. But I don’t like to break and divide myself into all these small little categories like, ‘I’m an American, a woman, a Latina, a black Latina.’ No. I am Zoe.” This casual denial of her race is is both insulting and convenient, as her career was partially built on roles which called specifically for black women, such as a student at a historically black university in “Drumline” or the daughter of the undeniably black Bernie Mac in “Guess Who.”