Facebook and Twitter have been abuzz with the news of the upcoming release of “Nina” the biopic of the iconic African-American Artist/Activist Nina Simone inappropriately starring Zoe Saldana. I have been very vocal in my oppostiion of this film and plan to lead a boycott against it. It is bad enough that the producers completely ignored the public’s outrage, back in 2012, when the casting was first announced. But to descecrate the memory of Nina Simone and insult the African-American community by painting Saldana black with makeup and slapping a bad Afro wig on her head, thus making her resemble a minstrel and a caricature, is a racist affront.
With all of us still discussing the racism in Hollywood and the #OscarsSoWhite situation, this sort of insensitivity is just ridiculous. Did the producers, director and all of the other people involved, including Zoe and her co-star David Oleyowo, really think that it was alright for blackface to be applied? What was Zoe thinking each day as she sat in that makeup chair? It appears that Nina is as alien to Saldana as the characters she played in “Avatar” and “Guardians Of The Galaxy” in blue and green paint, respectively. What was Cynthia Mort, the white female director, thinking when she looked at the monitor. Did her race and age blind her to just how ridiculous Saldana looks and the memories this sort of bad makeup evokes? And what of David Oleyowo playing opposite Saldana? How did he keep a straight face? Why didn’t he speak up?
Many on social media have stated that, because Saldana is black, we should have no objections to her portraying Simone. But to say this is to completely miss the point. I do not feel that Saldana should have been cast when there are so many more appropriate choices including Viola Davis, Jennifer Hudson, Lauryn Hill (although she is a bit unpredictable professionally), Erykah Badu, Lizz Wright and so many other actresses and singers. However, once she was cast, my bigger objection is the decision to play it in blackface with a nose prosthetic. If she was going to do it, she should have played it straight as she is. Yes, maybe the wig. But no, to the paint job and prosthetic. Because playing it this way displays such an ignorance to who Nina Simone was and the legacy she left us, that it amounts to a cinematic hate crime. In addition, it is another glaring example of the rampant racism and insensitivity in Hollywood to cast the light skinned sister of the moment, irrespective of the fact that she is not right for the part, then blacken her skin.
Some others have also expressed fear that if we boycott this film, that Hollywood will stop making movies about iconic black figures. But if Hollywood is going to badly portray our ancestors, like this, we do not need them to tell our stories at all. I would rather not be spoken of then to be lied about! This is Nina Simone in blackface, for Christssakes! NINA SIMONE! We can’t fear being taken backward because we are already over the proverbial cliff. We cannot allow fear to be our guide and allow Hollywood to continue to spit on the legacies of our ancestry in this way. We cannot keep rewarding these sort of insensitive acts with our moviegoing dollars! We need to fearlessly demand that our stories be told, be told accurately and portrayed properly. I have no doubt that a Nina Simone biopi directed by Ava Duvernay or Julie Dash, or any other director of color, would definitely not have starred Zoe Saldana in blackface. We need to be the keepers of our own cinematic flames.
Nina Simone was a woman, who prided herself on her Blackness and taught us all to do the same at a time, when we were smack in the middle, of the civil rights struggle. She struggled all her Life with colorism and taunts about her nose being too wide. But she proudly embraced her natural beauty and taught us all to embrace ours too. She uplifted us as children by telling us we were “Young, Gifted and Black” and so poetically described the many experiences that represented black womanhood in “Four Women”. This film portrayal of her is so wrong, on so many levels, that it feels like racist retribution for those teachings and her efforts to inspire us to greatness.
Director Cynthia Mort stated in Entertainment Weekly this week that, “The bottom line is this: Nina Simone deserves to be known.” But this is shortsighted thinking. Yes, Nina Simone should be known. But she certainly deserved a better effort than this to find an appropriate actress, who could have played her without the bad makeup job and wig, that is both distracting and disrespectful to her legacy. Shame on everyone involved. Hollywood goddamn!