Last month, I read that actress Zoe Saldana had replaced singer Mary J. Blige for the lead role in the upcoming Nina Simone biopic. A “scheduling conflict” with MJB has been suspiciously cited as the cause. Anyway, Hollywood insider site Shadow & Act has read the script and says it is a love story based on Simone’s 1992 autobiography I Put a Spell on You and centers around her relationship with a younger man.
Needless to say, many who heard about the switch weren’t too happy. There were a few complaints that Saldana doesn’t have the acting chops to play Simone, or that a Black actress of African-American descent would be better suited for the role than Saldana, a Black Latina. I found both of those complaints ridiculous. Saldana’s put forth a solid performance in each of her many roles, and as an actress her job is to act. I know that Simone, dubbed the High Priestess of Soul, is a musical icon, but if we don’t expect Idris Elba to always play a Black Brit, I don’t know why Saldana should always be a Black Latina.
Most of the criticism of Saldana’s selection focused on her looks, as in Saldana and Simone might both be Black, but Saldana doesn’t have Simone’s deep brown hue, wide nose and full lips. One Louisiana woman was so incensed about Saldana being aboard the project that she launched a petition targeting the film’s producers and casting directors. In part, it reads, “it is without a doubt straight up disrespectful to Ms. Simone and her legacy to get an actress who looks nothing like she did to portray her in a movie about her life. Getting light complexioned actors to play the roles of dark complexioned historical figures is not only a sign of blatant disrespect to the persons they are portraying, but it is also disrespectful to... the intelligence of the audience.” The petition currently has 8,000 signatures.
I sympathize with Saldana. So many Black actresses have spoken about the difficulty of finding quality work, and I know she had to be elated when she was offered a rare and coveted role with depth. But the part has turned out to be a gift and a curse. Every since she signed on, she’s been bombarded with people essentially calling for her to be fired.
As much as I don’t want to jump on the “Zoe’s Got to Go!” bandwagon, I agree with the naysayers. It’s totally plausible Zoe could put forth a helluva performance, one in which she embodies the character so much that it doesn’t matter if she shares her features. Diana Ross hardly looked like Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues, and Denzel Washington, even with dyed hair, didn’t look at all like Malcolm X in X. But frankly, I’d just like to see a brown gal depicting a brown girl up on the screen. Sure, the filmmakers could do some fancy makeup tricks to make Saldana look more like Simone, and maybe that’s the plan. But why do that when there are actresses like Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis, Kimberly Elise, Kim Wayans or newcomer Adepero Oduye who are beautifully brown, bold featured, and extraordinarily talented, and who could do the role justice without all the headache?
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk