The top photo above is Zoe Saldana in a still image from the yet-to-be released biopic on Nina Simone’s life. The picture next to it is the actual singer, Civil-Rights activist, and star Nina Simone ((February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003). The other picture is from a Spike Lee film about intra-racial racism. The casting of Saldana to play Nina Simone has infuriated many Black Americans, who argue that dark-skinned Black women are once again passed over for a lead role, while the job goes to a lighter-skinned actress. In the case of this upcoming film, it’s particularly galling since Nina Simone was dark-skinned. Hollywood, forever practical and concerned with the financial bottom line, characteristically has gone with a casting choice they deem profitable — and Zoe Saldana has been successful box office. However, there’s another message here — a very old message — dark-skinned women, in Hollywood are not seen as marketable, attractive or profitable. In other words, can’t a dark-skinned sister even get the job to play a famous and iconic dark-skinned singer, like Nina Simone??
Nina Simone is someone you may never have heard of; however, she is a pioneer and iconic singer who ushered in notions of Black Pride in the 1960’s with her look and style and the content of her music which was unapologetically aggressive, proud, and Black. Along with her talent, Nina stood out because she was the first dark-skinned black woman to enjoy such success and build the foundation of her talent and music on her blackness. You can find out more about her if you’re interested. Here’s a brief biography on her performance style:
Simone’s bearing and stage presence earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul”. She was a piano player, singer, and performer, “separately and simultaneously”. On stage, Simone moved from gospel to blues, jazz, and folk, to numbers with European classical styling, and Bach-style fugal counterpoint. She incorporated monologues and dialogues with the audience into the program, and often used silence as a musical element. Simone compared it to “mass hypnosis. I use it all the time”.[22
Inter-racial racism (racism between races, like black and white) is nothing new. Intra-racial racism (racism within a race, lighter-skinned versus darker-skinned) is also nothing new. So, this current controversy about Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone is one more chapter in a long narrative of colorism and being color-struck in the Black community.
When I watch music videos or rather when I used to watch them regularly when I was your age (18 – 20), I noticed the complete absence of any darker-skinned women. Fair and mixed-race were the industry standard. Recently Eric Benet put out a song called “Redbone” which angered lots of people.
Here at Clark Atlanta University, I wonder is this color controversy happening and how much so? If you say, she or he is “light-skinned,” does that work like a synonym to mean “pretty” or “handsome?” Does he or she is “dark-skinned,” work like a synonym for the words “ugly” or “unattractive?” If you say “dark-skinned, do you have to add “but he’s handsome”or “but she’s pretty”?
How far have we come as a people, when Hollywood overlooks casting someone like Anika Noni Rose or Viola Davis in this role? Or is Hollywood, just reflecting the same racial biases the Black community has itself? If I watch the top 20 videos on BET, will I see an array and rainbow representation of women?? And even if I did or did not, will the women all be scantily dressed, gyrating, and voiceless , cast as male eye-candy or sexual fantasy — silent, sexy, and available?
In short, in this casting controversy which has gone viral all over the internet, we have the subject of race, racism, sexism, Blackness, pride, entertainment, Hollywood, music, film, African-American culture, identity, and pride all wrapped up in this discussion.
In 1988, my senior year in college, Spike Lee’s film School Daze was in theaters — the thing people remember most about that film is the iconic scene of “jigaboos vs. wannabees” (see photo above).
Has anything changed 24 years later?