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India.Arie

VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

India.Arie’s name is one of many that have come up in discussions about who could have played Nina Simone in the upcoming biopic Nina. Many people have already voiced their opinions about Zoe Saldana’s casting and aren’t too pleased with the prosthetics and dark makeup used on Saldana for the role. But Arie’s opinion definitely holds some weight because she actually portrayed Simone in a 2003 episode of the 1960s-set NBC drama American Dreams.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Arie spoke about the issues she sees with the film, especially when it comes to how Saldana ended up looking.

“It made me sad. The way she looked in the movie was ugly. Whether or not Nina Simone was beautiful in your eyes, I thought she was beautiful. But in this movie, she just looked weird. Her skin looked weird, and her nose looked weird. It made me wonder, ‘Was that how the filmmakers see her? Did they not think she was beautiful? Were they like, ‘Yeah, we got it! That’s how she looked,’” Arie stated.

Although there’s the small population of people who feel it’s OK to use makeup and prosthetics to add to Saldana’s look in the film, there are some who’ve actually questioned Saldana’s background. Arie, however, acknowledged that she doesn’t know enough about Saldana’s background to question it.

“It’s not my place to say how Zoe Saldana perceives herself, and I can’t say how anybody else perceives her, either. I see her as a black person of Hispanic origin, but I don’t even know what that really means, because I don’t know anything about race and Hispanic culture,” Arie said.

Arie has been vocal about the movie since 2012 and wrote a piece back then about Simone’s legacy and how her looks played a role in it. She maintained that stance in her most recent interview:

Nina Simone sacrificed so much to be as bold as she was about being black and about being female in an era where that could have cost her life. She was denied access to a conservatory not because she didn’t play great, but because she was black. She would have had a different career if she looked like Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge. She could have been the first black female concert pianist, world-famous. When you look a certain way you get certain privileges; when you look another way you’re denied access to certain things, especially in her era.

So 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. To propagate that institutionalized racism that is historical in Hollywood in a movie about her is ironic in the worst possible way. 

Who would Arie pick if she were casting an actress to play Simone? Well, ironically, she didn’t say herself, but she did mention actress Adepero Oduye, who has often been compared to Simone.

It’ll be interesting to see the feedback the film receives after its April release. And if it doesn’t do well at the box office, you can only blame the people behind its production. 

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Yesha Callahan is editor of The Grapevine and a staff writer at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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