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So last week, the first trailer for Nina, the biopic about the black jazz singer and activist Nina Simoe, was released. Here it is.

The trailer has re-ignited a controversy that first flared when it was announced that Zoe Saldana had been cast to play Simone. The reaction on Twitter from many black people was quite negative, using phrases like “I am disgusted”, “it made me physically ill” “truly heartbreaking”, and “a rogue SNL skit”. You can see some of the reaction here.

As a white guy, this reaction startled me. I had only just heard about the movie a week ago, and I hadn’t heard about the controversy over Saldana’s casting. Why would so many black Americans be upset about this movie, including Simone’s own daughter? So I decided to dig into it a bit. White Americans like myself can often be quite unaware of how black Americans experience American culture, and I firmly believe that it’s the job of white Americans to try to understand the complexities of race without just asking black people to explain it to us; it’s not the job of black Americans to explain race to us. So this post is really about me trying to understand race from the privileged position of whiteness. My apologies if I do a poor job of it.

I first really noticed Zoe Saldana as a performer when she was cast as Lt. Uhura in the Star Trek reboot (a misbegotten film in my opinion, for reasons having nothing to do with Uhura, but that’s a totally different issue). She was also cast as Anamaria is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a Caribbean pirate queen. Why, I wondered, would black people object to a black actress playing a black singer?


Zoe Saldana


Except, as it turns out, Saldana is Puerto Rican and Dominican (although she does have some Haitian ancestry as well). (And see Update below.) I realized I had been perceiving her as a black actress because Uhura is a black character. And Saldana is very fair-skinned, whereas Simone was a very dark-skinned woman. Additionally, while Saldana is classically beautiful, with straight hair, and a thin nose and lips, Simone had curly hair, and a wide nose and lips. In order to play Simone, Saldana had to wear a prosthetic nose, a wig, and skin-darkening make-up. So the controversy is primarily that Saldana does not look very much like Simone.

As I thought about it, my reaction was that this objection was unfair to Saldana. Essentially, the film’s detractors seemed to be complaining that Saldana wasn’t ‘black’ enough to play Simone. But who gets to determine who’s black and who’s not? As I’ve commented before on this blog, what Americans think of as race is really a social construct far more than a biological fact. So asserting that Saldana wasn’t black enough seemed to me to be reifing race, asserting that it is somehow a biological category after all. And saying someone is or isn’t black is playing the game that racists used for centuries, a new iteration of the infamous ‘One Drop’ rule that said that anyone with a single drop of black blood was fully black.


Nina Simone


And furthermore, I thought, arguing that historical characters can only be played by actors and actresses who physically resemble them is a serious problem. That would arbitrarily exclude many brilliant performers from playing many of the greatest roles in film and theater. Only certain Italians would be able to play Julius Caesar, for example, because few others would have the proper coloration and aquiline nose for the role. Only a very tall man would ever be able to play Charlemagne, since he was about 6’5. And going just a little bit further, nearly every role in Shakespeare would be closed to non-white performers, since nearly all his roles are Europeans.

But then it occurred to me that I was essentially thinking that black activists didn’t have a right to be upset, that I wasn’t giving them credit for thinking deeply enough about an issue they live with on a daily basis much more than I do, skin color. So I dug a little deeper.

And then I realized that there was another layer to the issue, one much more about historical attitudes toward blackness. A key element of Simone’s story is that she was considered too ‘black’ to be attractive, because she lived at a time when beauty was defined by white standards. For a black women to be pretty, she needed to have fair skin, a thin nose and lips, and straight hair. In other words, she had to look like Zoe Saldana, and not like Nina Simone. Simone’s life was to some extent shaped the fact that she didn’t fit the racially-charged beauty aesthetic of her day. Her success as a jazz singer and as a civil rights activist allowed her to serve as a role model for generations of black women who, like her, didn’t and still don’t fit the beauty standard of American society.

And some of her work explicitly addresses these very issues. Her “Four Sisters” directly addresses the stereotypes around black women’s bodies. Her jazz version of the traditional folk song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” played with the fact that the song is traditionally sung about white people rather than black people.


Nina Simone in later life


The intensely negative reactions on Twitter were expressions of anger and pain that Hollywood has taken an important role model for an alternative beauty standard and given it to a conventionally beautiful women who was then ‘debeautified’ with make-up and prosthetics in order to play the role. Why, many of these people asked, couldn’t this role have been given to an actress who naturally looked more like Simone? Why couldn’t the film validate Simone’s model of beauty instead of undermining it? Why did they decide to put Saldana in blackface, at a time when blackface is considered entirely unacceptable in almost any other context?

And it doesn’t help that most of the production team for the film is white.

My whiteness affords me the privilege of thinking about casting historical roles purely on the basis of merit. It allows me to assume that most white actors can easily substitute for historical figures who did not share their appearance. But the complex, ugly racial realities that we live with don’t afford that same privilege to many black actors, who are often perceived as being ‘too black’ for some roles (i.e. not pretty/handsome enough by white standards) or not ‘black’ enough for others (i.e. black gang members or hustlers or prostitutes). Racial attitudes shape black performers’ careers in ways they don’t shape white performers’ careers, and a prestige role like Simone could have gone to many actresses who have probably been considered too dark-skinned or too wide-nosed or just too ‘black’ for many other roles.

Does this mean that Saldana shouldn’t have taken this role? Does Simone have to be played by a dark-skinned actress? I don’t know. In an ideal world, where race isn’t an inescapable issue, any actress who has the skill for the part ought to be considered for it. But in the world we actually live in, things are a lot messier. Race pervades most facets of our society, and it shapes things like casting decisions and how we understand films and performers. Ultimately I don’t think I have an answer to the question, but I think I understand the position of the people who are upset a lot better than I did before.

As I thought about this whole issue, I wrestled with whether I ought to post about it. I’m a white guy struggling to think about race, an issue that I have the luxury of being able to ignore when I want to. Do I understand the issues clearly enough to be able to say something intelligent about it? I hope so. Am I missing some additional facet of the situation that black people can see? Probably. Have I just said something clueless about race? I really hope not.

But it’s clear to me that race and white privilege is a huge issue in this country, and it’s at least as much the job of white people to think about race as it is the job of black people to explain it to white people. So I decided that even if my thoughts aren’t entirely on the mark, I had an obligation of a sort to post this. Hopefully I’ve been able to cast a little light on the problem for my white readers who may be as puzzled as I was about this controversy.

UpdateA point that I had intended to include, but forgot to. Saldana has said that she doesn’t identify as black because “people of color don’t exist ’cause in reality people aren’t white.” So she rejects the social construct of race. That’s certainly her right, but it has definitely offended some in the black community. As the post I just linked to comments, “Saldana’s decision to accept the role of Nina Simone as a labor of “love” makes her view of race and racism all the more puzzling. It appears as if donning Blackface and depicting Simone has done little to connect the actress with the crooner’s spirit. You can’t portray Nina Simone without realizing how intricately race was intertwined with her life and career.” And it’s worth pointing out that it’s easier for a light-skinned actress to reject the social validity of race than for a dark-skinned actress to.

Here’s another blogger writing on the question of Saldana’s race and responding to the same quote.

Want to Know More?

The movie is not out yet. But if you want to know more about Nina Simone, you could start by reading her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You.