Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'A Young Nina Simone Would Have a Hard Time Being Cast in Her Own Biopic' Today

Photo by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates' powerful essay, "Nina Simone's Face," explores the difficulty of “scaling the social ladder” for young Black girls.

A great deal has been said and explored in response to Zoe Saldana’s casting in the Nina Simone biopic Nina, from the Twitterverse backlash the movie trailer provoked, to stars’ criticism and casting suggestions, to the comprehensive look at the team behind the film.

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Adding to the dialogue is The Atlantic’s national correspondent, Ta-Nehisi Coates who gets personal in his powerful essay titled “Nina Simone’s Face.” In the essay Coates explores the difficulty of “scaling the social ladder” for young Black girls and the significance Nina Simone’s life and music played in both addressing and confronting these societal ills. He writes,

"When I was kid, I knew what the worst parts of me were—my hair and my mouth. My hair was nappy. My lips were big. Nearly every kid around me knew something similar of themselves because nearly every one of us had some sort of physical defect—dark skin, nappy hair, broad nose, full lips—that opened us up to ridicule from one another. That each of these "defects" were representative of all the Africa that ran through us was never lost on anyone. "Africa" was an insult—African bush-boogie, African bootie-scratcher etc. Ethiopian famine jokes were all the rage back then...

Simone was in possession of nearly every feature that we denigrated as children. And yet somehow she willed herself into a goddess.

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Simone was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about black women who looked like her. And for that she enjoyed a special place in the pantheon of resistance. That fact doesn’t just have to do with her lyrics or her musicianship, but also how she looked… We look at Nina Simone’s face and the lie is exposed and we are shamed. We look at Nina Simone’s face and a terrible truth comes into view—there was nothing wrong with her. But there is something deeply wrong with us.

Coates refutes Robert Johnson, whose studio is releasing Nina, on the notion that Nina Simone’s face is of little importance in the movie about her life and demonstrates how her music as well as her appearance present race in a larger context.

“…The producers of Nina are the heirs of this history—not personal racists, but cogs. Jezebel’s Kara Brown researched the team behind Nina. It is almost entirely white. Doubtless, these are good, non-racist people—but not good enough. No one on the team seems to understand the absurdity at hand—making a movie about Nina Simone while operating within the very same machinery that caused Simone so much agony in the first place. I do not mean to be personally harsh here. I am not trying to hurt people. But there is something deeply shameful—and hurtful—in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic. In this sense, the creation of Nina is not a neutral act. It is part of the problem.”

The entire essay is definitely worth the read.

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