Last month, I read that actress Zoe Saldana had replaced singer Mary J. Blige for the lead role in the upcoming Nina Simone biopic. A “scheduling conflict” with MJB has been suspiciously cited as the cause. Anyway, Hollywood insider site Shadow & Act has read the script and says it is a love story based on Simone’s 1992 autobiography I Put a Spell on You and centers around her relationship with a younger man.
Needless to say, many who heard about the switch weren’t too happy. There were a few complaints that Saldana doesn’t have the acting chops to play Simone, or that a Black actress of African-American descent would be better suited for the role than Saldana, a Black Latina. I found both of those complaints ridiculous. Saldana’s put forth a solid performance in each of her many roles, and as an actress her job is to act. I know that Simone, dubbed the High Priestess of Soul, is a musical icon, but if we don’t expect Idris Elba to always play a Black Brit, I don’t know why Saldana should always be a Black Latina.
Most of the criticism of Saldana’s selection focused on her looks, as in Saldana and Simone might both be Black, but Saldana doesn’t have Simone’s deep brown hue, wide nose, and full lips. One Louisiana woman was so incensed about Saldana being aboard the project that she launched a petition targeting the film’s producers and casting directors. In part, it reads, “it is without a doubt straight up disrespectful to Ms. Simone and her legacy to get an actress who looks nothing like she did to portray her in a movie about her life. Getting light complexioned actors to play the roles of dark complexioned historical figures is not only a sign of blatant disrespect to the persons they are portraying, but it is also disrespectful to... the intelligence of the audience.” The petition currently has 8,000 signatures.
I sympathize with Saldana. So many Black actresses have spoken about the difficulty of finding quality work, and I know she had to be elated when she was offered a rare and coveted role with depth. But the part has turned out to be a gift and a curse. Every since she signed on, she’s been bombarded with people essentially calling for her to be fired.
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