In Defense of Zoe Saldana’s “Nina”

Recently Zoe Saldana, an actress of color, tearfully apologized for portraying African-American singer Nina Simone in the 2016 biopic Nina. Saldana has come under heavy criticism for darkening her skin and wearing a prosthetic nose to appear more like Simone in the film.[1]  The more I read about this situation, the more I wonder whether any African-Americans had expressed interest in playing Nina Simone. Has anyone raised this question? I wonder further whether Ms. Saldana might have been better off had someone else who looked like Nina Simone but lacking in acting talent been cast in the role. In any event, the movie was fraught with inaccuracies and was universally panned.[2]

I happen to enjoy Nina Simone’s music, admire her defiance toward American racism, and believe there is a good biopic about her waiting to be made.  Along these lines, what if Ms. Saldana, a woman of color, happens, like me, to be a passionate admirer of Nina Simone?  What if Ms. Saldana’s dream has always been to show her respect for Nina Simone by acting in a film about her?  Why is that unacceptable?

In 2010 a biography of Nina Simone appeared.  David Brun-Lambert, its author, offered up convincing explanations for certain manifestations of her oftentimes prickly behavior.[3]  I read the book and came away with an appreciation of not only Nina Simone’s music, but also of her tenacity in pushing back against the racism that thwarted her dreams on several fronts and faced her at every turn.  Mississippi Goddam, indeed!  Now, Mr. Brun-Lambert is white.  I recall no politically-inspired condemnation of Brun-Lambert’s work. As far as I know, he issued no formal public apology.  Because of Brun-Lambert, many readers are closer to Nina Simone than they would have been without him.  I know that I am. If a white male can write an acceptable biography of a Black female, then why can’t a Jamaican/Puerto Rican female portray a Black female in a movie? What if viewers of Nina, intrigued by the film, took further interest in the music and message of Nina Simone?

I, for one, have a hard time accepting the fact that Ms. Saldana felt the need to apologize for portraying Nina Simone.  Ms. Saldana’s supposed sin lies in acting in the role of Nina Simone. But isn’t the portrayal of others the quintessence of acting? Criticism of Ms. Saldana’s performance should be based upon her skills as an actor, not upon the color of her skin or the make-up job. Shouldn’t we assess the film on its artistic merits instead of injecting issues of race into the discussion?

Has racial enmity come so far that art, which should count among its duties the bridging of racial differences–however constituted—must instead accentuate them?  Must we assign racial pigeonholes to our artists? Isn’t the Zoe Saldana case censorship’s kissing cousin, masquerading under the guise of political correctness?

[1] Before her apology, Ms. Saldana pointed to Elizabeth Taylor’s role as Cleopatra in 1963’s Cleopatra as precedent. The casting of Taylor in the role of an Egyptian has met with sporadic condemnation over the years. Nicole Kidman wore a prosthetic nose to appear more like Virginia Woolf in The Hours. That was an Australian attempting to pass for a Brit. But how, then, do we explain Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of an African-American professor in The Human Stain? Or Richard Gere portraying an American of Japanese descent in Akira Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August? Why do such cases not come in for deeper scrutiny?

[2] Those interested in watching a worthwhile film about Nina Simone should turn instead to the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which contains ample footage of the actual Nina Simone.

[3] Brun-Lambert, David. Nina Simone: A Biography. Aurum Press, 2010.

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