Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone Is What Happens When Diversity Doesn't

Ealing Studios screenshot
Ealing Studios screenshot

When news first broke a few years ago that Zoe Saldana would be cast in Nina — the yet-to-be-released biopic about the iconic artist and activist — I wasn't as put off about the aesthetic dissimilarity between Saldana and Simone as many of us seemed to be. Mainly because I generally don't believe an actor needs to be a person's doppelganger to convincingly portray that person.

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But, this is where that pesky-ass irritant called context matters. Because much of Simone's work was specifically centered in her specific experience as a dark-skinned Black woman who existed outside of America's — White America's and, sadly, Black America's — general standard of what's considered beautiful. Zoe Saldana, on the other hand, doesn't just exist within the standard. For many, she is the standard. This, for the record, doesn't make her any less Black than Nina Simone was. But it does bring up questions about erasure. Namely, why a biopic about Nina Simone, perhaps the least "Hollywood" celebrity America has even seen, would be given the Hollywood treatment? And while Zoe Saldana has a bankable name and known acting chops, when telling the Nina Simone story, it is actually vital to cast someone who favors her more. (Or, rather, favors her naturally without the aid of prosthetics.) In this specific instance, a doppelganger would be more appropriate. So, why not do exactly that?

Now, the first paragraph and the second paragraph of this might seem a bit incongruent. And that's because they are. I began with an explanation of why I didn't think Saldana being cast as Simone was a big deal. And then, in the second paragraph, I shifted gears and explained why it is; effectively contradicting myself. What you read is the result of what happened to me between the time I first heard the news and now. The idea that Saldana's casting was inappropriate didn't immediately come to me. Because I wasn't as familiar with Nina Simone's work and also I wasn't immediately sensitive to the race and colorism-related concerns of an actress like Saldana being cast as her. But then I listened to what some of my friends — specifically Black women more naturally sensitive to it — had to say. And I read pieces about it, followed Facebook threads concerning it, and clicked on tweets explaining it. And then, after I sought out and received more information about a subject I wasn't as well-versed in, my opinion about that subject changed.

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The concept of diversity is often thought of in aesthetic and largely superficial terms. Quotas are filled so the "urban" accounts have a pointperson and your company's cookout group photo will look less Abercrombie and more Benetton. But what diversity, true diversity, actually does is fill blind spots. It surrounds you with people with different experiences and different knowledge bases who you can lean on and learn from when necessary. And the decision to cast Zoe Saldana — and be unprepared for the blowback/criticism — is an unfortunate but predictable by-product of the lack of it. With it, however, perhaps you have someone in the room who lets the producers and the director (Cynthia Mort) know the negative response to this news wouldn't be worth the boost having Saldana's name attached to it would provide it. Maybe you'd have someone who'd provide a list of actresses who'd be great and less controversial choices. And maybe someone would communicate to them that they'd risk offending the very demographic who'd be the movie's most fervent supporters.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

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malaentuvida

My biggest issue with this whole thing was Saldana's seemingly delusional reaction to the backlash:

"What keeps me focused and what kept me from getting stressed and hurt by the comments is [that] I'm doing this for my sisters," said Saldana. "I'm doing it for my brothers. I don't care who tells me I'm not this and that. I know who I am. I know what Nina Simone means to me. That is my truth and that is what set me free."

Saldana adds that no matter what critics or fans say about the final version of the movie, she'll keep her head held high. "I did it out of love," she said. "Out of love for Nina. Out of love for my people. For who I am. My pride of being a Black woman. A Latina woman. An American woman. That's my truth."

Chick, whut?