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

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.


Are you saying that Zoe Saldana isn’t “black enough” to portray a black woman? Because that’s what this sounds like.

No. Not at all. The fact that Saldana—or any black woman—fits more into the Eurocentric standard of beauty does not make her “less black” than women who don’t. This isn’t about Saldana’s blackness bona fides. It’s about a woman who’s generally considered to be beautiful, even by Hollywood’s harsh beauty grading curve, being cast as a woman who mined much of her art and activism from the way women with features more commonly associated with black women are often (dis)regarded and (mis)treated.


So, a black actor or actress portraying a person always has to be that person’s doppelgänger?

No. For instance, in Concussion, Will Smith portrayed Dr. Bennet Omalu. Although Smith was criticized for his “Nigerian” accent, the fact that he doesn’t look much like Omalu didn’t really matter. Because Omalu’s looks didn’t have any effect on his work. You can “Hollywood” his story without retarding and ruining it. With Nina Simone, however, giving her story the Hollywood treatment negates the point of even telling it.


And this brings up another point of contention. Zoe Saldana might be Hollywood’s most bankable black actress at the moment, but she’s not the only one. Instead of attempting to shoehorn her into a role like this, why not just cast someone closer to Simone’s aesthetic? There are dozens of actresses, known and unknown, who could have been cast and wouldn’t have received the same pushback and negative attention. Actresses who wouldn’t have had to be placed in prosthetics and virtual blackface. You wouldn’t put Kevin Hart in stilts to star in a movie about Shaq. Because that would be ridiculous. And insulting. This is the same thing.

Ultimately, while creating a movie about a woman who spoke of and created work about dark-skinned black women being ignored and erased, the filmmakers ignored and erased dark-skinned black women.


OK, I get it now. But I have to say, I’d totally see a movie about Shaq that stars Kevin Hart on stilts.

I would, too. But you’re missing the point.

I know. I’m just saying.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com.

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