In Honor of Nina Simone: Why Black Women Must Re-Frame the Conversation about Racism in Hollywood
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the internet’s sensationalized debate over Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone in a Hollywood biopic: How the Light- vs. Dark- Skinned Debate Misses the Point about Black Women in Media.
In summary, my post called for marginalized communities–especially, in this instance, black women– to be more aware of the way the mechanism of racism and colorism in Hollywood too often keeps us sensationalizing debates about Hollywood’s perception of our beauty (and even, as in this case, pits us against each other), rather than embracing the opportunity for us to affirm our collective power as both media producers and consumers.
For me, this debate was yet another moment in the cycle of abuse between the black community and the gatekeepers that control white media; the fact that Zoe Saldaña, another woman of color was getting a lot of backlash (via comments that suggested she was hijacking a role meant for black women, dismissing her self-identification as a Black Latina, not to mention personal attacks against her character etc), was discouraging, to say the least.
It’s one thing to criticize the white supremacist media machine that is Hollywood; it’s another thing entirely for us to let that criticism distract us from seeing how that machine is designed to keep us fighting each other over scraps (e.g. debating over who gets the few lead roles written for women of color) more often than we brainstorm how we can work together to grow and harvest enough seeds to keep nourishing us all.
As long as we keep Hollywood and mainstream media at the focal point of our discussions (and criticisms) around media representation, we will remain stuck in a very unproductive cycle.
Same Ole’ Mainstream Media vs. Nuanced Alternative Media
Case in Point: The New York Times published a story this week, summarizing the debate around Zoe Saldaña’s casting for the lead role of Nina Simone. (Please note: My comments are based on the article published online, and not what made it into print, as I’m currently in South Africa).
Despite being interviewed by the reporter, and sharing my thoughts about the importance of black communities recognizing the ways in which alternative media–and initiatives to produce more black-owed and -directed content–could lead to better representation in the future, the article didn’t do much at all to move the conversation forward. In fact, it maintained the status quo.
The NYT article‘s framing of the issue was barely nuanced. In a nutshell, here’s how it went: black people are angry because Zoe Saldaña doesn’t look like Nina Simone, here are other examples of black people protesting the casting of light-skinned actresses, Hollywood is racist and will always prioritize profit, oh well.
Conversely, Huffington Post Live was able to expand the conversation beyond the sensationalized polarity because black women actually led the conversation.
The segment, titled “50 Shades of Black,” featured an impressive panel of five black women commentators, including Ann Daramola, Michaela Angela Davis, Salamisha Tillet, Tiffani Jones, and Gayla Burks.
Further, this lively panel was facilitated by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an academic, activist, journalist, and television personality (i.e. the male version of my idol Melissa Hill Perry). Hence, the collective response to the messy biopic debate was way more nuanced, poignant, and thought-provoking.
In this case, black women’s voices didn’t just play a supporting role; the panelists had more control over the conversation, the media through which they were sharing their perspectives, and thus, the outcome.
Even though I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the way the conversation was framed (or even the way it ended), the segment, for me, proved that the more ownership we take of media, the better we have of ensuring that our stories and perspectives are authentic, complex, and representative of the plethora of issues we care about.
Black Women Must Re-frame (Then Lead) the Conversation
In the NYT piece, Cynthia Mort, the director, of the biopic is quoted as dismissing the historical implications of her casting choice by stating, “It’s a Biopic, not a Documentary,” and thus, a creative take on Nina Simone’s life. Her response offers more proof (as if we needed any at this point) of how rampant white privilege is in Hollywood; that a white director gets to use an African-American socio-political icon as formidable and celebrated as Nina Simone as creative fodder with no consequence should be scaring folks into finally moving beyond these cyclical conversations that aren’t getting us anywhere.
So, for instance, instead of a segment titled “Why Does Hollywood Light-Wash Blacks?” (’cause, seriously, we already know the answer to that), how about we as media professionals and activists get into the habit of tackling more action-elicit questions e.g. “How Can Black People Combat White-Washing of Our Images in the Media?”, especially when we have five brilliant black women social commentators on standby? Just a thought.
When I was interviewed by the reporter for NYT, she revealed that she’d spoken to a high end stakeholder in the biopic, who said, and I quote, “Listen, Zoe is hot right now,” as justification for the casting decision.
Need I elaborate? This is — and always will be — about money. This movie will be made, online petition or not. Per my rant on Tumblr, Hollywood will not suddenly wake up one day and prioritize our authentic histories over their capitalist projects. The situation is not going to change. So, we need to change our strategy. Thankfully, there are others in the media sphere calling for this as well.
Yaba Blay, Africana Studies teacher, scholar, and consultant to CNN Black in America recently commented:
… although I think casting Zoe is a bad move (and disrespectful to Nina’s image and estate), I also think we have to hold “us-folk” accountable. Why haven’t any Black filmmakers made a film about Nina yet? Doesn’t the late, great High Priestess of Soul deserve more than one movie? Or is it only now that a White filmmaker is doing her own thing with Nina’s image that we recognize/remember her legacy? Rather than (or in addition to) complaining, we need to be creating.
Similarly, amidst the familiar stagnant critiques of racism and colorism in Hollywood that were saturating the Huffington Post Live segment, Ann Daramola , stated repeatedly, “Why are we surprised? Why should we continue to expect that Hollywood will tell our stories for us?”
In her post, Zoe Saldaña as Nina Simone is a Reminder to Keep Telling Your Story, Ann offers more than just a fluffy call to action, but calls for strategic investment in black media infrastructure that will give us more autonomy over the creation, curation, and distribution of our stories.
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.
To Ann’s point, if we can accept that we are actually not surprised, and we know that Hollywood won’t change, I think we’d naturally focus more of our efforts on highlighting and supporting solutions, of which there actually are many.
We Need More Than Black Media Producers; We Need Black Media Consumers, Too
During the Huffington Post Live segment, Michaela Angela Davis highlighted a few of these solutions: AFFRM, an African-American film distribution company dedicated to diverse cinematic images; Image Nation, a film production company nurturing a strong local film industry in the United Arab Emirates; Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving film industry (and the 3rd largest in the world), which produces and distributes films made with very small budgets.
Still, what good are black-owned film production initiatives if we as a community don’t call for more strategic consumption and critique of the media produced by them? What value are we assigning these solutions in the media if we ourselves reduce them to being one-off mentions, tangents in the larger conversation about racism and colorism in Hollywood?
In a 25 minute segment, a total of about 3 minutes (yes I timed it) was dedicated to highlighting solutions already in place, before getting right back to criticizing Hollywood.
It isn’t enough to simply mention that there are minority film professionals already contributing to part of the solution (i.e. by creating more media). We need more discussions around their work’s value and potential to subvert the power structure in the film industry.
I don’t doubt for one second that criticism of Hollywood plays an important role in keeping Hollywood accountable. I just question how often that phrase (“keeping Hollywood accountable”) keeps our voices restricted to being reactive, when we are way more powerful when we use our voices in service of others; young black women, for instance, who need to know that there is hope for them to have flourishing careers in film and media; older black women who are tired and frustrated with Hollywood’s chronic appropriation and alteration of our histories.
We owe it to each other to more frequently use our voices to highlight our resistance, and use our collective power to increase support and visibility for the projects that will get us closer to the future we wish to see, because it is possible. Here’s how:
- Black People Are Repeat Consumers of Blockbusters, Why Not Redirect the Dollars?: A quick scan of this study on black movie-goers from BET Networks shows that the black community has way more power than it’s using e.g. African-Americans go to the movies 13.4 times a year vs. 11 times for general market, they’re repeat movie-goers for films they like, and are heavy consumers of alternative media. However, in this same study, when listing the top films supported by black audiences, only 3 out of 19 films featured a prominent African-American character. What would happen if we changed that? What would happen if made it a priority to only support the films we want to see? Think on that.
- Hollywood Taps into Their 1% and So Should We: When I published my call for more creation and support of black media, the most popular attack at the plausibility of profitable black media infrastructure was limit to capital. That is certainly an obstacle to contend with, but from the recent successes of the Tyler Perry franchise, Steve Harvey’s Think Like a Man, and other projects, not one that’s insurmountable. There is a black middle class and elite in the entertainment industry, creating and leading their own projects, raising millions of dollars for Obama. Let’s not erase their accomplishments by continually perpetuating the idea that there is no capital for projects we’d like to see at all.
- The Groundswell of Community Support Bolstered Indie Flick, Pariah, into the Mainstream: Pariah, a film about a young queer woman of color growing up in New York, was catapulted into mainstream media by all the buzz coming from grassroots community who supported it. Now, Dee Rees is reportedly working on a project with HBO, and Adepero Oduye, post-nod from Meryl Streep, is pursuing new opportunities in Hollywood as well. Alternative media may not ever replace the mainstream, nor Hollywood, but it certainly works to even out the playing field for black media professionals with notches on their belts.
There are so many other avenues to explore when it comes to black alternative media, even if for the purpose of mainstreaming that media eventually. So why do the most vocal commentators on this issue keep reverting to the same old conversation i.e. the “problematicness” of Hollywood?
As one of the panelists, Michaela Angela Davis noted, the colorism evident via this casting decision is very triggering for black women, who constantly have to defend their right to feel beautiful, appreciated, and respected. I imagine that’s part of the reason it’s been so challenging for us to break this cycle; our feelings regarding the media’s (mis)representation of our beauty and aesthetics have been either continually invalidated, or worse, ignored.
Still, we cannot let our pain keep us lingering outside of Hollywood’s gates, hoping for an apology, expecting retribution, or worse, throwing stones at the few of us who have managed to make it inside. We must embrace the idea that we can be gamechangers, that our collective power is formidable, that we can create media that’s better and more representative of who we are, for the sake of young black girls everywhere, for the sake of Nina Simone herself. Time to change the game.
Food for Thought: When the facilitator stated that he didn’t want his daughter growing up to think Nina Simone looked like Zoe Saldaña, it would have been incredible to have all those brilliant minds put their heads together and offer, from their various perspectives, ways in which we as community could ensure such a thing never happens.
Instead, via a vote about who each panelist would have liked to see play Nina Simone, the conversation ended with these black women on the bench as spectators of Hollywood’s game.
After such a lively conversation, I couldn’t think of anything more disempowering to end on a note that ultimately suggests to young black girls that Hollywood will always be upheld as the ultimate validation of their voices, their stories, their work. Can we please change this?
Here lies an opportunity for us to commit to handling the next conversation like this differently, to frame future conversations around racism, colorism, and media around solutions, which tap into our power as a community, and send the message to future generations that change is indeed possible.
Even though we have very far to go, I believe this conversation was a solid start. Take a look. And let me know what you think.