Zoe-Saldana-Nina-Simone

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.