How Hollywood Failed Black Women With Nina Casting

By
Nina Simone.
Nina Simone.Photo: Jack Robinson

After the trailer for Nina was released — featuring a noticeably (and artificially) darker Zoe Saldana in the title role — there were, to put it mildly, some criticisms, and many reasons for those criticisms. Layers and layers of reasons. Like a seven-layer dip of reasons and problems, and subtle and not-so-subtle race issues that people are still working their way through.

In an essay for The Atlantic titled “Nina Simone’s Face,” Ta-Nehisi Coates tackles all of those layers, examining what Nina Simone and her unapologetic blackness means to black women. He writes:

I have always known that Nina Simone means something much more to a specific kind of black woman than she ever can for me. Simone was in possession of nearly every African feature that we denigrated as children. And yet somehow she willed herself into a goddess … Simone was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about black women who looked like her. And for that she enjoyed a special place in the pantheon of resistance. That fact doesn’t just have to do with her lyrics or her musicianship, but also how she looked. Simone is something more than a female Bob Marley. It is not simply the voice: It is the world that made that voice, all the hurt and pain of denigration, forged into something otherworldly. That voice, inevitably, calls us to look at Nina Simone’s face, and for a brief moment, understand that the hate we felt, that the mockery we dispensed, was unnatural, was the fruit of conjurations and the shadow of plunder. We look at Nina Simone’s face and the lie is exposed and we are shamed. We look at Nina Simone’s face and a terrible truth comes into view—there was nothing wrong with her. But there is something deeply wrong with us.

Coates goes on to write how, by casting Saldana in the role, Hollywood sends a message to black women whose beauty might be considered too far from the mainstream definition of black beauty (read: closer to white) that they are not bankable, and thus perpetuates the same cycle of racism that Simone confronted:

We are being told that Nina Simone’s face bears no real import on the new eponymous movie about her life, starring Zoe Saldana … Saldana is seen as bankable in a way that other black women in her field are not. It’s equally difficult to ignore the fact that, while it is hard for all women in Hollywood, it is particularly hard for black women, and even harder for black women who share the dark skin, broad nose and full lips of Nina Simone. 

It’s a problem that black actresses from Lupita Nyong’o to Viola Davis have voiced over and over again: They don’t look at the screen and see their own beauty. They don’t look at casting announcements and see roles for women who look like them. So what does it say when one of those few roles, one that could have easily been given to any number of other actresses, goes instead to someone more “bankable” (lighter)?