Strange Casting: On Zoe Saldana and Authenticity in Hollywood


Editor’s Note: This article was edited April 21 to reflect recent updates.

“Nina” may have arrived in theaters today, but the Nina Simone biopic has already endured years of controversy.

It started in 2012. The film’s production company, Ealing Studios, announced Zoe Saldana as Simone, who died in 2003. Before her death, the Civil Rights-era singer put a spell on listeners with hauntingly beautiful songs like 1966’s “Four Women.”

With that announcement, detractors began to sharpen their pitchforks. If Simone resembled “Four Women’s” Aunt Sarah, whose “skin is black,” Saldana looked more like Sweet Thing, who says, “My skin is tan, my hair is fine.” The people against the black Latina’s casting did not want Sweet Thing to play Aunt Sarah.

In March, the trailer for the film was released.

It showed Saldana wearing makeup to darken her skin and a prosthetic nose. But she still didn’t resemble Aunt Sarah. Critics lit their torches and unleashed the hounds. Before seeing the film, the social media mob sought to tweet Saldana off the project.

“USAToday,” “Buzzfeed” and other sites collected some of the harsher tweets. People lobbed words like “offensive,” “horrible” and “blackface” as if they were grenades.  

Recently, early reviews from some film critics sound ready to bury the film. “The Washington Post” says Simone “deserves better treatment,” and “The Root” declares, “‘Nina’ is as horrible as you thought it would be.”

In an interview with “TIME” last month, Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly stressed that, despite her problems with Saldana in the role, the blame should not fall on her:

“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture,” Simone Kelly said.

That picture is often framed by questions of authenticity and historical accuracy. In recent years, films like “Argo,”  “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Selma” came under fire from critics for distorting history.

“Nina” poses a different question: does the actor look like the person she is playing, a question rarely aimed at white actors.  

The tall and glamorous Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were hardly dead ringers for the short and ordinary Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, but 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” marked a turning point in American movies. Leonardo Dicaprio might date far fewer models if he looked anything like J. Edgar Hoover. He still got the part in 2011’s “J Edgar” and a Golden Globe nomination to match. Few people who saw “My Week with Marilyn” that same year would say Michelle Williams resembled Marilyn Monroe, yet that didn’t stop her from winning a Golden Globe for the role.

Even if they don’t look the part, white actors usually do not have to defend being chosen for their roles.

Actors of color, particularly women, are another matter.

Some Mexican-Americans cried foul when Jennifer Lopez, a Puerto Rican from New York, got cast as Selena, a Mexican-American from Texas. Today, the film is considered her breakout role, but the anger directed towards Lopez in 1997 mirrors the anger towards Saldana today.

Diana Ross drew a similar reaction for playing Billie Holiday in 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues.” She looked and sounded nothing like Holiday. Nevertheless, Ross won an Oscar nomination. Sometimes we pull down our brothers and sisters before they’re even allowed to show they can fly.

Not that Saldana hasn’t tried to say the right things. In a post-screening conversation of the film in Atlanta this week, Saldana seemed to address her detractors:

“I wanted to find some way to identify with her as a woman, as an artist, as a person of color, as an American, and just try to find any similarities in how powerless you can feel sometimes as an artist, when all you want to do is just exhibit your art, create art, and sometimes you have to go through so many layers of bulls–t that can impede upon you feeling absolutely free,” she said.

But perhaps her critics can’t get passed her remarks about race in a 2013 interview with “BET:”

“To all of a sudden leave your household and have people always ask you, ‘what are you, what are you’ is the most uncomfortable question and it’s literally the most repetitive question,” she said. “I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they can contribute as individuals and not what they look like… To me there is no such thing as people of color cause in reality people aren’t white. Paper is white.”

Ultimately, her career proves more notable than her words.

Virtually alone among black actresses, Zoe Saldana’s career equals many of her white peers. From “Drumline” to “Star Trek,” we’ve seen Saldana grow up on screen. She’s been “The Girl” in movies with predominantly black casts (“Takers”) and integrated casts (“The Losers”). From summer blockbusters to indie fare, dishing out death in “Columbiana” to laughs in “Death at a Funeral,” Saldana’s resume matches and even exceeds white actresses around her age, like Julia Stiles, Katherine Heigl or Rachel McAdams.

All that’s missing on her resume is a role that could put her in the company of serious performers. “Nina” could be that role.

Despite occasional controversies over casting decisions, Hollywood tends to think green rather than black and white. For “Nina,” the movie studio heads considered how many moviegoers actually knew what Nina Simone looked like, let alone who she was. The Hollywood suits sought to make a movie that could draw people who have never heard of “Four Women” or “Mississippi Goddamn.”

So they chose Zoe Saldana instead of, say, Adepero Oduye. Oduye may be some black people’s choice, but since her most notable role in 2011’s “Pariah,” she has only garnered small parts in “12 Years a Slave” and “The Big Short.”

With “Nina,” the studio executives chose financial security over authenticity, just as they did with J.Lo in ‘97’s “Selena” and Ross in ‘72’s “Lady Sings the Blues.”

Indeed, in an interview with “Buzzfeed,” “Nina” director and writer Cynthia Mort spoke out about her film’s casting:

“Long before I met Zoe, there were other people considered who were not acceptable to financiers,” Mort said.

To flip a famous Chris Rock refrain, just because I understand, doesn’t mean it’s right. Stories about minorities rarely get told. When they are, white filmmakers often get to put in or leave out whatever they think will sell.

Will “Nina,” whose director, producers and casting director are all white, give Simone her due? Will their film even hint at how Simone’s unapologetic blackness breathed life into her art even as it upset social sensibilities? Will “Nina” see Nina as beautiful?

Perhaps not. After all, how many people celebrate Simone’s looks today, let alone in the ‘60s? You’ll find few Simones in the pages of “Vogue” or on “America’s Next Top Model.”

In a recent “Atlantic” article, Ta-Nehisi Coates examines this problem:

“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,” he says.

Singer and actress India Arie voiced similar displeasure in an interview with “The Hollywood Reporter.” Her fans thought she should’ve played Nina. Although Arie says she would like to imagine a world in which race and color don’t factor into reel life, in real life, this is not the case:

“In the context of the politics of race in America and the politics of race in the entertainment industry in America, to make a movie about a person like that and cast an actress that has to wear blackface and a prosthetic nose is tone-deaf,” she said.

Indeed, Hollywood does not hear the pain behind Nina Simone’s song “Images,” with a girl that “does not know her beauty / she thinks her brown beauty has no glory.”

If that glory has been compromised with “Nina,” it won’t be the last time. The all-mighty dollar will always trump authenticity.

Consequently, I believe black people should use our dollars to support young actresses like Oduye and movies like “Pariah,” which despite critical acclaim grossed only around 750,000 dollars. Instead of flogging Saldana, we can embrace her desire to “exhibit her art” and play the best roles she’s offered. More important, we can work harder to embrace women who look like Oduye and Simone, in the movies and in our own communities.

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