Nina Simone Biopic Casting Woes: A Personal Take

Relating her childhood experience of meeting Nina Simone, Colorlines blogger Akiba Solomon issues a strong rebuke to Hollywood for perpetuating color-struck attitudes by casting the light-skinned Zoe Saldana to portray the dark-skinned diva.

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Akiba Solomon (left) and sister Asali Solomon with Nina Simone at Temple University in 1980 (Yvette Smalls)

Relating her childhood experience of meeting Nina Simone, Colorlines blogger Akiba Solomon issues a strong rebuke to Hollywood for perpetuating color-struck attitudes by casting the light-skinned Zoe Saldana to portray the dark-skinned diva in an upcoming biopic.

... Given the rich, sharply political source material of Simone's songs, performances and writings, I think it's appropriate for journalists, bloggers, academics and commenters to question the casting of Saldana, an extremely thin, light brown skinned woman with relatively narrow facial features, to play Nina Simone.

In some cases, fans have gone too far, repeatedly (and falsely) accusing the Puerto Rican and Dominican Avatar star of denying her blackness and suggesting that she's stealing roles from so-called real black actresses. For the record, I think it's unfair and silly to say that Saldana can't play the High Priestess of Soul because her ancestors landed in a different part of the African diaspora.

To me, the real issue is that the filmmakers seem to have a sensitivity and style deficit. Let's consider their experience:

The Simone biopic's director, Cynthia Mort, is best known for writing for and producing the sitcoms Rosanne and Will & Grace and for co-writing the underwhelming 2007 Jodie Foster revenge film The Brave One ...

Mort originally cast Mary J. Blige, a popular singer with medium brown skin, narrow eyes, an aquiline nose -- and limited acting skills -- to play Simone. When Blige left the production due to scheduling conflicts, Mort tapped Saldana, a serviceable actress who also looks nothing like the title character.

It is not Zoe Saldana's fault that Hollywood and mass media prize light skin, straight hair, very thin female bodies and keen facial features. Nor is it Mary J. Blige's fault that filmmakers continually give movie roles to singers, rappers and television hosts who aren't strong actors. I get it: Hollywood is about maximum profits and minimum risks ...

Read Akiba Solomon's entire piece at Colorlines.

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