Zoe Saldana Cast as Nina Simone: Race and Beauty, Hollywood Style

This just in on the ambiguously-racist front. Actress Zoe Saldana, best known for her role as a sexy blue avatar in James Cameron’s blockbuster hit (but best loved by me for her supporting role in 2000’s Center Stage) has been cast in the role of Nina Simone, iconic American singer and civil rights activist, in the upcoming movie about her life. Many have criticized the casting of Saldana, who is light-skinned (she is Puerto Rican and Dominican) in the role of a dark-skinned woman with traditionally African features. Nina Simone’s beauty defied norms of her time, and this resistance to the Anglo-dominated aesthetic is, arguably, one of the most enduring elements of her power.

So, is Hollywood whitewashing African American history? Duh. Hollywood is hardly the place I turn to for authentic diversity. Does Saldana deserve flack for this? Of course not. Saldana, whose racial ambiguity has afforded her some wiggle room in Hollywood, has still paid the dues of all cinematic women of color, from her roles as many a white chick’s sidekick to her breakout as Neytiri, a blue tribal alien woman. Hollywood so rarely offers roles for women of color in which they are not walking checkboxes for racial diversity quotas, slaves, servants, or exotic creatures of foreign lands, so let’s applaud Zoe for a well-deserved opportunity to play a leading lady, and a fine one at that.

Okay, shift your arrows. Who’s next? It must be the fault of Cynthia Mort, writer and director of the film (she’s white, and white people are always doing ambiguously racist things). According to her interview with The New York Times, her film does not intend to address Simone’s subversive aesthetic and thus her empowering of black women, but it is, instead “a love story.” Shocker, a Hollywood film that sidesweeps the most interesting nuances of an historic figure for the drama of a bloated and largely invented romance. But Cynthia Mort owes no debt to historical accuracy in creating a film that admittedly invents and conflates characters for the purpose of an emotional experience. It’s her film, with her particular focus. At the very least she has created a role for a woman of color that does not fall into aforementioned unpleasant categories. The film isn’t out yet, I’ll reserve my judgments.

But I’m angry! Who can I blame? As with many instances of injustice, there is no easy target for our label slinging. Let’s look at the conditions of our world. I don’t have any statistics to make up and throw in here, but, trust me, most blacks and Hispanics in this country do not have access to High School drama club, let alone the kind of training and connections it takes to make it in Hollywood. Nina Simone was denied a scholarship to a Prestigious Music institute due, many hypothesized, to her race. Today, our educational discrimination is not always purposeful, but it is institutionalized, and just as effective. How many black actresses did Ms. Mort have to choose from? I can think of two, three? Not exactly a large casting call. And beauty? Dissertations have been written on this topic, but it doesn’t take a sociologist to recognize that Anglo features (i.e. slim hips and small noses) have defined this country’s feminine model since before the media existed. It’s what keeps LA’s plastic surgeons in sports cars.

This is a conversation about ideals, and about access. If we are going to slam our fists and sling our arrows, let’s at least know what, precisely, we are trying to wound. It is not the individuals making artistic choices, but the age-old, monolithic, complex, skin-deep, system within which we all are trying, so diligently, to do our jobs.  

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Amy Kurzweil

Amy is an MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at The New School. She graduated from Stanford University in 2009 with a B.A. in English and Interdisciplinary Honors in Feminist Studies. She writes fiction and comics and is currently working on a graphic novel about Jewish identity and narrative. Check out some of her work here: www.amykurzweil.com. When she is not writing or drawing, Amy explores her interest in education (and pays her bills) as a dance teacher for unruly but lovable middle school students in the Bronx.

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