Zoe Saldana to Star in Nina Simone Biopic: How the Dark vs. Light Skin Debate Misses the Point about Black Women and the Media

In case you missed it, Hollywood is gearing up to release a biopic of Nina Simone, an African-American singer, pianist, and civil rights activists whose music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights for blacks in the US.

I myself was only introduced to Nina Simone via a remake of her song, “Feeling Good.” I remember jamming to it in my dorm room when a friend of mine remarked that it was no where near being as good as the original. I promptly searched for the original on YouTube and was blown away by the command of her voice.

Further searches led me to “Strange Fruit“, a song (based on a famous poem written by Abel Meeropol) she performed about lynchings in the south, along with a slew of other noteworthy appearances that punctuated her career path as a Black woman singer-turned-political figure.

A biopic about Nina Simone will undoubtedly strike a chord with the African-American community. But given the recent controversy surrounding the project’s casting choices (i.e. Zoe Saldana, a Dominican actress as the lead), it’s not likely to be perceived as the “right” chord.

But when is it ever?

In a recent update on Facebook, Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone, shared her thoughts about the new film project. Here are, for me, the most important aspects of her comment:

Please note, this project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone Estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate.

If written, funded and CAST PROPERLY a movie about my mother will make an lasting imprint.

From Tragedy to Transcendence – MY VISION. The whole arc of her life which is inspirational, educational, entertaining and downright shocking at times is what needs to be told THE RIGHT WAY.

For all she endured while here and all of the lives she has touched, she DESERVES to be remembered for who she truly was; not some made up love story from a former nurse/manager (now deceased) who sold his life rights because of his relationship to Nina Simone.

You can read the rest of her comments here. In a nutshell, here are my two cents…. 

I’m not surprised that a movie is being made about Nina Simone without consulting her family or estate. Not one bit. We know this story all too well: The Help and Untitled Nelson and Winnie Mandela Biopic also moved ahead without consent from the source.

I’m also not surprised that the screenplay for the Nina Simone biopic wasn’t written by a black woman, and thus, per her daughter’s concerns, will use that as license to perpetuate inaccuracies.

And finally, though sadly, I’m not surprised that black women have busied themselves with the question of who will “play” the role of Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana vs. dark-skinned black actresses) rather than focus on the root cause of mis-representation in Hollywood: the absence of a strong network of black writers, producers, and studios.

This is the only comment I will be making on this issue because it’s always the same story, but even more frustrating, always the same rhetoric about how white people are appropriating our stories. As a community, we’re not doing nearly enough writing to make white people’s overly-simplistic, inaccurate, saviorist depictions of our lives irrelevant.

The hard truth is this: if we spent more time creating media instead of criticizing it, there’d be way more diversity in representation, and way more stories and perspectives to which white people can be more frequently held accountable. 

Pushing for ownership of both the infrastructure and content that portrays our lived experiences — that is the crux of the issue; not just the politics of light vs. dark-skinned actresses. So, whereas I am completely on board with calling out the colorism behind the biopic’s casting choices (and the harmful message that’s being sent to young, dark-skinned black girls everywhere by having a light-skinned woman play Nina Simone) there aren’t enough strong lead roles written for women of color in Hollywood for me to fairly tell Zoe Saldana, a hard-working, talented brown woman to “sit this one out.”

When will black women, LGBTI, Africans, everyone-that-has-been-screwed-over-by-hollywood finally get it that we need more autonomy over our media? When will we begin militantly fighting for mainstream media’s accountability to not just the story but the storyteller?

Whenever I pose this question, the conversation is almost always derailed by arguments that advocate about “allies” i.e. whether or not they have the right to be the owners and producers of our stories based on the fact that they have “skill”. Take for instance arguments that suggest the writer-director of the project, Cynthia Mort, doesn’t necessarily deserve the right to lead such a critical project with just chops from writing for shows such as Roseanne and Will and Grace. Or that Zoe Saldana is a brilliant actress regardless of her skin tone, and so will undoubtedly do a great job in her lead role as Nina Simone (and that therefore, black women shouldn’t be angry?).

But when we frequently prioritize debates about “industry expertise” vs. “authenticity/stakeholdership of the storyteller” we completely miss the point: our focus shouldn’t be just on the depiction of one character, or even the accuracy of one story, but about the (dis)empowerment of the storyteller i.e. who writes and owns the f**king book.

Afrolicious, one of my favorite black woman media advocates says in her most recent blog post:

… we have so much work to do to get our stories spread. We need to build a media infrastructure as formidable as Hollywood’s that can distribute these stories and support those at the margins who are telling and creating them. We need to create platforms that we own, community-owned media centers that are not at the mercy of funding cycles or internet service providers. But most of all we need to keep telling our stories.

I couldn’t have said it better. Now, back to writing and documenting my work training and coaching African women and LGBTI groups in Southern Africa to tell their own stories, so that they can become thought leaders, and change the world.

NOTE 1: Correction added. Strange Fruit was based on a poem written originally by Abel Meeropol, and performed by a number of singers, including Billie Holiday. Thanks, Sarah J. Jackson for the tip!

NOTE 2: Updated to include black-owned studios as additional point at which we can subvert white-dominated film industry i.e. ignore them and create our own.

  • Nkrumah

    I agree with much you have said. A good effort being made to do just what you are talking about it the group AFFRM(African American Film Festival Releasing Movement) of which Ava DuVernay is one of the founders. Their approach is interesting and workable. She is also the producer of a documentary on females in Hiphop called “My Mic Sounds Nice”. But indeed your point is well taken.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      THANK YOU for sharing this! I’d heard whispers of this initiative but appreciate the link. Will go there right now and investigate. This is EXACTLY the sort of thing we need. Awesome. Thanks again :)

  • Mina

    I think that you are missing the point of the debate. Why is Hollywood watering down “lightening up” the image of such a strong icon? Because Hollywood is not willing to put someone that looks like Nina Simone on screen. The only way to stop this kind of nonsense is not to support projects like this. The people who have been up in arms about this are fully aware of how important it is to tell this story. Do not insult us just for the sake of filling a page with words. It is exactly because we know who she is and what she means that we will not sit by quietly while another perfectly great opportunity to portray a strong woman like Nina Simone as she is….dark and lovely.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Mina, I absolutely get why people are angry. That you believe my attempt to refocus the conversation so that my people aren’t always distracted by privilege from Hollywood is unfortunate, because I absolutely get the importance of colorism in this debate (as I mentioned in my piece). However, my point is that our framing the issue around light vs dark skin is not targeting the root cause.

      Think of it, if we did most of the writing, directing etc, we’d have WAY more black/woc characters in the media, and there wouldn’t be so much riding on who gets to play Nina as imagined by a white director; no, we’d have told several stories about her by now. We have no diversity, and so the squabble over the role of who should play Nina Simone smacks of the effect of tokenization; that we’re willing to invalidate Zoe Saldana’s self-identification as black (when SO many latinos from the Caribbean too often deny their African/Black roots) to me is a shame when we should be focusing our efforts on writing and producing more strong lead roles for black women.

      Now, it’s Viola Davis (and I agree, she’s amazing and would have done a terrific job, dark skin and all); but the point is why are there so few options to play Nina? Viola is popular now because of the Help (strong lead role for black women — which many of ppl protested due to its inaccuracies, saviorist themes — written by a white woman). Alternatively, Angela Bassett is popular for her portrayal of Tina Turner. That role, too, was written into screenplay by a white woman, also produced by a white dude, but the story had more of an anchor to reality because it was based on a BOOK written by Tina Turner herself! I needn’t go into how that film was received, as it’s still celebrated as one of the most powerful roles for black women in Hollywood, and opened up doors for dark-skinned women of color, too.

      So my point is that writing, creating, producing the films themselves, not just complaining about racist/colorist choices made re: single casting choices is important, otherwise we’ll keep on distracting ourselves with the size of a single band-aid while we keep letting the gaping hole in our gut bleed out…

  • Sinnerman

    Oh Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
    Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
    Where you gonna run to?

    The Studios think they can rewrite “her story”. We are enlightened enough to know better.

  • http://herbrainsdailychurn.tumblr.com NAK

    Great article. One thing to consider this film is not a Hollywood production, it is an independent production, at least according to this article: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/confirmed-zoe-saldana-will-play-nina-simone-in-biopic-a-some-realities-to-consider

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Thanks for this link. I’m aware. I call it a Hollywood production because the writer/director comes from such films as Will and Grace, and Roseanne, and because Zoe Saldana is very much a part of the Hollywood list of black actresses (she “always” plays Black women, I’m yet to see her play a Latina). The idea is still the same, that it’s from an industry, space, privileged cove that our stories are being re-told for us, and we need to grab the pen and fight back, not argue over their obviously misguided choice of who plays one character.

      • Jay

        Zoe was in Colombiana in a Latina role. She received criticism for starring in a movie that continues to stereotype Latinos as drug dealers/criminals. I am proud that Afro-Latinas are more visible in the Latino community. And in some circles she is considered a dark-skin Latina.



        • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

          Ahhhhh yes! I can’t believe I forgot about that movie. She was actually very very good in it, and yes, perhaps the first time I’ve ever seen her play a Latina (save for her racially ambiguous role in Pirates of the Caribbean early on in her career). I’m with you on visibility of Afro-Latinas in the media. So much work has been done to bring those stories and ethnic identities to light, thank goodness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1100422456 Ella Alexander

    It’s all bullshit!! and yall know it……Zoe is a cool actress and i like her…but we have so many other black women who would fit that role more appropriately! Nina aint just some fly-by-night kind of artist…she’s a ledgen and she was definately pro-black! i think Viola would be a great fit for the role, even Jennifer Hudson, Alfre Woodard..hell need i go on??? Akia you sound like you have a problem with Viola’s skin tone…or am i reading you worng? Zoe is very much lighter than Nina…smdh….Anyway, i think it’s a damn insult to Ms. Nina and her craft. She has a dauhter out there somewhere…It would be great if she stepped up and repped her momma..but i’m not even sure if she’s still with us or not. I’m just tired of white folks, and other folks tryna tell our stories..and aint never walked a damn day in our shoes….or Nina’s shoes for this matter. I wish this Bio would have coma about years ago..the Cicely Tyson would have been a great fit…ijs:-)

    • ryan

      im gonna go ahead and assume you didnt actually read the article..

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Akia-Nicole/657767785 Akia Nicole

      You are reading me wrong. There’s never a shortage of presumption on the internet. My initial comment/question posted to my facebook page and a friend brought up Viola Davis as a viable alternative. My comment on her was in response to that. Depending on the time frame of the movie, Tyson and Woodard may be a bit long in the tooth for the role (since you spoke about who else would be appropriate). I initially asked about the difference because a) I’ve always been more concerned with Simone’s music than her skin tone and b) the light in the two pictures on this page hits them so differently that it’s hard to tell. Zoe Saldana isn’t coal black, but neither is she yellow enough to pass or have that red thing going on. It sucks for an actress with acceptable chops to be pushed out because she’s not dark enough, especially when it’s much easier to get darker than it is to get lighter.

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