Why People Are Upset That Zoe Saldana Is Playing Nina Simone, Explained

This isn’t about Saldana’s blackness bona fides. It’s about how Hollywood completely misses the point of the legendary singer’s message about blackness.

Zoe Saldana in the movie poster for Nina
Zoe Saldana in the movie poster for Nina Ealing Studios

Who is Zoe Saldana?

Zoe Saldana is a star actress who’s been in numerous science fiction and fantasy blockbusters, most notably Avatar, Star Trek, The Guardians of the Galaxy and Drumline.

Wait, Drumline was fantasy?

Of course! In it, she was the baddest senior on campus and she fell in love with a freshman. A freshman with cornrows. A freshman with cornrows who happened to be Nick Cannon. If this doesn’t qualify as science fiction, I don’t know what does.

Why is she in the news today?

A few years ago, it was revealed that Saldana would be cast in the lead role in Nina, a biopic about iconic artist and activist Nina Simone—a choice that was roundly considered (at best) very peculiar and (at worst) “Wait, WTF were they thinking???” Petitions were formed, protests were threatened and tens of thousands of angry emojis were tweeted.

The murmur eventually petered out, and the project left pop culture’s collective consciousness. At least until this week, when the movie’s official poster and first trailer were released. And then it started all over again.

So, I’m confused. You established before that Saldana is a popular actress. Also, she is a black woman. Why is it a problem that she’d be cast as Nina Simone? If anything, this should be considered a positive, because having her name attached to it might make people who don’t know very much about Simone interested in actually watching the movie. What am I missing here?

Well, as I mentioned before, Saldana has had a very successful run as the primary love interest in blockbuster movies. Much of this success is undoubtedly due to her acting chops, professionalism and versatility. But also, it can’t be denied that Saldana possesses certain physical features that allow her to exist within Hollywood’s general standard of beauty. In fact, she doesn’t just exist within the standard. She might be the standard. And she’s such an attractive choice for these types of roles because she fills two boxes: the diversity box and the unrealistically attractive woman—even if said unrealistically attractive woman is 9 feet tall and blue and has a tail box.

Nina Simone, however, did not exist within this standard. She possessed features more commonly associated with black women. In fact, much of her work was centered on this. It’s a vital part of her story.