Are We Being Too Quick to Judge Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone?

PHOTO: Zoe Saldana to play Nina Simone in next movie.

Facebook.com/ZoeSaldana & Facebook.com/Nina.Simone

For a Hollywood It girl, Zoe Saldana doesn't have it easy. Despite the fact that she's worked with everyone from James Cameron to Luc Besson to J.J. Abrams, and her roles seem to be getting meatier, she isn't exactly embraced by all.

Sure, she has great style and is always a darling on the red carpet (she even runs her own fashion website, MyFDB.com) but beyond that, people always seem to find something to criticize, starting with her weight. Take Bossip's story "Super Slimmy Trimmy: Is Zoe Saldana Wasting Away Into A Bulimic Betty?".

If it's not her weight, it's her skin tone, or her portrayal of Latinos (Colombiana, anyone?). At least we seem to have moved beyond the era of picking on biracial relationships, so no one seemed to have a problem with her dating Bradley Cooper.

Saldana's divisive nature seems to have reached an all-time high with the news in August that she had been cast as Nina Simone in an untitled movie about the legendary jazz singer's life.

From the get-go, I knew it wouldn't be easy for people to accept Saldana in the role, but I wonder if the extent of the opposition to her portrayal of The High Priestess of Soul is a bit unfair.

If you visit Nina Simone's official fan page on Facebook, you'll see there is no shortage of vitriol toward the movie and the choice of Saldana as its female lead. Mostly the criticism deals with Hollywood's "whitewashing" of the real Nina Simone, and the artistic liberties the script appears to be taking when choosing to focus not on certain aspects of Simone's career and life (like her civil rights activism) but rather in telling the story of her relationship with Clifton Henderson, a nurse she met at a psychiatric hospital in California during her struggles with alcoholism in the 90s, after which she settled in France until she died in 2003 at age 70.

Indiewire actually read and dissected the script, which apparently holds some promise.

A classic example of a Facebook comment on Nina Simone's fan page, from user Princess Latifah: "I am more outraged at people telling us that there is nothing to be outraged about. Are you freaking kidding me??? This film is a typical standard of Hollywood trying to gentrify, and whitewash black people and black history. Nina Simone's skin tone was a central core in everything she was about, and a central core of everything she faced, so to put a lightskinned latina with european features in blackface for her role is a slap in the face to her legacy."

New photos from the set of the movie have only fueled the fire. In them, Saldana is seen wearing a nose prosthetic and skin-darkening make-up, in a seemingly futile attempt to resemble the real Nina more accurately.

It's not that there aren't other black actresses out there who can play the part, and it's not like those actresses don't have legitimate bones to pick. Take Taraji P. Henson, an Oscar-nominated black actress (and one of my favorites), who, as one of the three leads in the CBS show Person Of Interest, was left off all of the marketing materials and promo efforts. Henson made a big stink about it - as well she should.

Some fans are wondering why someone like Viola Davis isn't playing Nina Simone. Mary J. Blige was originally cast as Nina Simone, but dropped out due to scheduling, per the movie's screenwriter, Cynthia Mort. In this Rolling Stone article from 2010, Blige seemed excited about the role: "Playing a character like Nina Simone is playing myself," she said, "because Nina Simone was a manic depressive, drug addict, alcoholic, cursing wild maniac that I was, but very talented, so people would get that."

Nina's daughter, a Broadway actress who goes by the name Simone, regularly appears on her mother's Facebook fan page and even wrote a letter voicing her discontent with the Nina Simone project. She's also been giving interviews, like this one with dream hampton for Ebony, in which she's quoted as saying: "How does someone just decide to do a story about someone and completely bypass family? Completely bypass her representatives? We offered to get involved with all the stuff that we have, from the music, to the pictures, to her writings, to connecting them with the stories of many people who were close to my mother, and we were ignored."

Fan Demerise Valier from Baton Rouge, LA even started a petition on Change.org back in August asking the filmmakers to cast someone else as the lead in the film. So far, there are some 8,000 signatures of the 500,000 goal. "For too long Hollywood has gotten away with this practice of revisionist history and it is time that we let our voices be heard, be it by this petition or by boycotting the movie if no change has been made as to who will portray Nina Simone. This is not a diss to Zoe Saldana. She is an excellent actress, but this movie role so much bigger than her undeniable talent," the petition reads.

But Mort (who is white) believes strongly in the project, describing it not so much as a strict biopic but rather as a story about Nina Simone's artistic journey. She told EW: "Any creative decision is difficult…I feel very strong about it [the project] in every way. I feel like we're honoring her, Nina Simone."

Not everyone in the black community is upset about the casting choice. Singer/actress Jill Scott, for instance, came to Saldana's defense earlier this month:  "Zoe is an incredible actress," she told Hello Beautiful. "I think that there should be some work done, like a prosthetic nose would be helpful and definitely some darker makeup. If Forest Whittaker can become darker in "The Last King Of Scotland" then I believe Nina should be treated with that respect. She was very adamant about her color about her nose about her shape and her self and there needs to be some homage paid to that."

The blog Racialicious took a different, valid approach back in August, when it pointed out that maybe the problem is not so much who is playing Nina Simone, but something much bigger. "I'm not surprised that black women have busied themselves with the question of who will "play" the role of Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana vs. dark-skinned black actresses) rather than focus on the root cause of misrepresentation in Hollywood: the absence of a strong network of black writers, producers, and studios."

What's ironic is that Saldana considers herself black. One of her most famous quotes, to Latina Magazine in the May 2006 issue is, "When I go to the D.R., the press in Santo Domingo always asks, "¿Qué te consideras, dominicana o americana?" (What do you consider yourself, Dominican or American?) I don't understand it, and it's the same people asking the same question. So I say, time and time again, "Yo soy una mujer negra." ("I am a black woman.") [They go,] "Oh, no, tú eres trigueñita." ("Oh no, you're just tanned'") I'm like, "No! Let's get it straight, yo soy una mujer negra." ("I am a black woman.")"

Saldana has often played an African American on the big screen, from Uhura in the Star Trek reboot to Nick Cannon's love interest in Drumline, or Ashton Kutcher's girlfriend in Guess Who, but no one seemed to care about those movies in the way that they care about Nina Simone - for obvious reasons. We're dealing with an icon here.

But as a woman of color, Saldana deals with many of the same issues herself that her fellow black actresses deal with - and people tend to forget that. At the party celebrating the premiere issue of Cosmopolitan For Latinas, for which she was the cover girl, Saldana told The Huffington Post, on camera: "I can't yet pose for any magazine [referring to mainstream magazines like Vogue or Vanity Fair] and I wish I could. That would be great. Because there are still some magazines that only cater to a certain demographic and only put certain people no their cover, and that's fine, I never lose hope that one day certain big magazines can broaden their exposure of what is an American face."

So you'd think when she does the covers of certain niche magazines that she'd be safe from the backlash, but that's not always the case. Her September 2011 cover of Ebony had the cover line "There's Something About Zoe: Black, Latina, Fierce…Fall in love with Hollywood's freshest star." But the cover story interview made it kind of hard to do that.

In the story, she is quoted as saying: "When I go after a part, [people] better watch their backs," she says. "Not because I'm going to crush everybody, but because I'm going to give the best that I can because I strive for excellence. When you don't get a part, it is for a reason, and these pieces will fall into place soon. … We have a Black president right now, so why the f--- would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for Black women in Hollywood when there's a Black president in my country?"

I can see how that comment would rub people – particularly working black actresses – the wrong way. But Saldana is known to speak freely, almost aggressively, often with curse words, especially when asserting her strength, confidence, or independence. I know because, though I haven't interviewed her myself, I've edited more than one cover story of hers for which I read entire interview transcripts and thought to myself, "She's not exactly coming across as the most likeable person here, but I know what she means." In the case of that Ebony quote, I'm almost sure she wishes she had stated whatever she meant more articulately. I'm guessing part of that tough-girl demeanor has a lot to do with losing her father at a young age and growing up having to pretend she was stronger than she was at times, but that's just my take.

When it comes to Latinos, they've given her a hard time, too, particularly over 2011's Colombiana, an action movie about a little girl whose parents are murdered in Bogota and later becomes a stone-cold assassin seeking revenge in the U.S. There was even a whole campaign called PorColombia against the movie, which Saldana called stupid - again, probably not the best way to respond, but she's not exactly known for biting her tongue. "I wish I knew how to address stupid unintelligent comments but I don't," she told the Wall Street Journal. "It's just a shame that there are so many people out there that think so ignorantly."

But I'm not worried about Saldana. Whether her tough cookie image is a front or not, she is handling all of this better than expected. She hasn't overtly responded to the Nina Simone controversy yet - not a peep, but she (or someone on her behalf) does regularly post inspirational quotes on Twitter, like this one, from Bette Davis: ""The key to life is accepting challenges. Once someone stops doing this, he's dead."

And this project is certainly a challenge for an actress who has yet to gain universal respect - and win some awards along the way.

In her defense, I'm going to watch the movie first before judging.

What will you do?

Don't miss out on any of Fusion's highlights -- get Fusion today.
comments powered by Disqus

ABC UNIVISION

The 35 Hottest Latinos in Hollywood