The right and wrong of Nina Simone biopic starring Saldana


There is a lot of controversy connected to the unauthorized Nina Simone biopic movie due out later this year. Simone was an internationally renowned singer, songwriter and pianist in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She used her music to not only entertain but to speak out against racial and social injustice.

Many of your favorite singers today name Simone as a major influence. A movie regarding her life is long overdue.

The controversy surrounds actress Zoe Saldana being chosen for the lead role of Nina Simone. Many people have argued that she is not Black and/or not dark. According to her industry bio, Saldana’s father is Dominican and her mother is Puerto Rican. It is inarguable that Simone faced issues, which she described numerously, based on her skin color throughout her life and career.

Saldana is a fine actress, and has played a leading role in several high profile films: “Columbiana,” “Avatar” and “Star Trek.” Seemingly Hollywood has given Saldana the stamp of approval. She gives the Nina Simone movie currency and international market value with the mass movie-going audience of 18-34 year olds. As a producer, looking at the selection solely from a business standpoint, this is a great choice. Also as an actress who has been given a great challenge, Saldana will throw herself into the role and do a great job in it with the exception of one uncontrollable detail: She is not a dark skinned actress.

Normally this should not be an issue, except in this particular instance Simone was a woman who defined herself and saw the world attempting to define her in negative ways by her dark skin and full lips – neither of which Saldana possesses. It would be like making a movie about Shaquille O’Neal and having “Diff’rent Strokes” star Gary Coleman portray him in the movie. Here is a man defined by his prodigious size represented in a film by a man known for his diminutive stature. This portrayal gives no context to the essence or struggle of the man in his life.

This selection is less a slight to Simone and more a condemnation of the Hollywood movie system. The harsh reality is there is no dark skinned actress in the United States that has mass box office appeal to “open” this film. This speaks to a greater concern of dark skinned women being seen as attractive and marketable. When examined historically there has never been a dark skinned woman marketed as a sex symbol in movies or music. Think Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Beyonce, never.

This unauthorized bio has producers with credits such as “8 Mile” and “Get Rich or Die Trying.” A name of note here is Jimmy Iovine, president of Interscope Records. Interscope first came to prominence in the urban market with Dr. Dre, Snoop, Tupac and Suge Knight, known as Death Row Records. Enough said here on cultural sensitivity.

The film is going forward will be critically reviewed – including by this writer – as to the quality of the film, which clearly can’t be done at this point. The producers are entitled to their selection and again the hang up is on one particular film as opposed to the greater issue.

Those concerned should be finding a way to express the fullness of beauty in the spectrum of Black women so another dark skinned girl doesn’t grow up fighting the same demons. That would most likely bring a smile to Simone’s face and make her proud.

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