I remember the first time I met Ernest Green, the first to graduate Central High School of the Little Rock Nine–that group of students who made school integration in America a moment of historical and democratic note. I learned about him watching a Disney movie, as a 10 year-old, which effortlessly offered more depth than the five pages of study on the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement allotted in my college preparatory school’s 500-plus-page American history book. So when he shook my hand, years later as a recent college graduate, I responded, “I guess you do look like Morris Chestnut.” We shared a laugh.
The power of Hollywood film imagery rests in the fact that not too many people really takes the time separate biopic from fact. So, the growing clamor around the casting choice for a film on Nina Simone, which would be the first major telling on a subcultural hero for African beauty, is worth note.
For one thing, as noted in the 1986 documentary Ethnic Notions, for the majority of Americans, the history of African-Americans has been mostly relegated to Hollywood’s definition of the community, from the early days of blackface and caricature, most recently referenced in Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad” video.
From Tyler Perry’s Madea to the cast of the never since replicated shows of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, including Good Times, The Cosby Show, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, media influences how the world comes to perceive African-Americans and unfortunately how many understand our history. If only history books, news reports and other forums purported a balanced, complex set of stories that have evolved from the black American experience, black images in media would be casual.
Instead, as we enter a debatable age of post-racial black identity–in a context where Hollywood continues a tradition begun in the days of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, where only the lightest actors of African descent, specifically women, can be universally accepted objects of goodness and desire, and coincidentally, the legendary songstress Nina Simone finds her story moving toward the big screen. It is rare to find a work in her musical repertoire that does not reflect the intention of a woman whose deepest passion was celebrating the beauty and the value of the undeniably dark-toned, notably disenfranchised and misrepresented men and women of African descent.
And so, it it seems a puzzling choice for team who will be the first to depict Simone on film to cast someone who doesn’t even remotely claim Simone-like black identity, Zoe Saldana. Saldana who identifies as mixture of cultures, led by a connection to the non-racial Latina identity, is about as distant from evoking the imagery of Nina Simone as she is from evoking a truthful portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor. She is, however, a woman who serves the aforementioned Hollywood-defined look of black beauty with her fair skin tone.
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Saldana is one of an array of actors of color in an era of post-racial black identity driven by stars in an era where African-Americans are de facto black, but intentionally individual. From Tyler the Creator and Donald Glover, to Maya Rudolph and Rashida Jones, representing for the black race is now optional. And while the economic and political challenges of blacks as a racial group continue, identity evolves.
One can be funny and deep; black and not interested in race; of African descent but affiliated with another ethnicity; or traditionally African-American and acknowledging that many African-Americans who have been in the United States for seven generations are already mixed race, to same extent as our president of the United States, who can just more easily trace his ancestry.
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Black America is changing thus casting Black Americans becomes more complex. My own personal identity as a Black woman is increasingly influenced by Maya Rudolph—someone who, unlike me, was born to a black mother and white father—not because of our shared ethnic backgrounds, but because of her personality. Her characters do not often reveal race, instead quirkiness and individuality. And while race is important to me, Rudolph’s fluid identity is informing my own desires for how I wish to be acknowledged by people who deal with me day-to-day. I want more than to be that Black woman; I want to be engaged as that individual.
But bigger than the shading of who plays Nina Simone and post-racial blackness, I exaggerate to say that Meryl Streep is better suited for the role given the gravitas of the icon that is Nina Simone. On merit of casting based on research of the energy and potency of the protagonist, Zoe Saldana does not reach to where Nina Simone aspired. After all, given reconsideration of the film Basquiat, it was not problematic that Jeffrey Wright was fairer in skin color than Jean-Michel Basquiat, who he portrayed; the problem was that the script severely under-served Basquiat’s legacy/intelligence as an artist.
Without any casting experience, I would imagine someone like Regina King, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, or Gina Torres (please let the director know she may call upon me) better suited to breathe life into a woman whose lyrics intone: “Do you think that all colored folks are just second class fools? Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you with the backlash blues.”
Then again it is so hard to find a black actress…[Sarcasm.]
People are justified to worry that anyone born after the peak of Simone’s career will absorb as fact a very color-affected point of view when Zoe Saldana lip syncs, “My skin is black.” Deeper than the question how much Beyonce felt like Etta James in Cadillac Records: what is the lasting impact of diluting the purpose that was Nina Simone?
Then again, if all the dissenters gave each gave five dollars to a Kickstarter for a script and production crew approved by the Nina Simone estate, then Zoe Saldana and the production team for whom she serves as a muse, following an equally baffling casting choice of Mary J Blige, should enjoy their efforts to produce art.
But as it stands, I imagine that if Nina Simone were alive, and a young woman ran up to her after viewing a film led by a Zoe Saldana-type, Ms. Simone might respond, singing off to the gods and goddesses she intoned as only a broad-nosed, wide-lipped, course and curled hair-rooted, browner than mahogany woman born to into African culture-defiling politick could only do, “Please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
Watch Nina Simone Sing “Four Women”:
Jenna Bond-Louden is a cosmopolitan based in Harlem who writes on art, literature, film and social trends. Formerly of the Clinton Foundation where she led the launch of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund at age 22 and later served as a writer to Bill Clinton, her passion is for societal innovation. She served on the board of the Pipeline Crisis Winning Strategies Initiative for Young Black Men and was a 2008 recipient of the NYU Fellowship for Emerging Leaders in Public Service. She runs Imagine 1369, a strategy consultancy firm that helps creative leaders shape a better world.