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Nina Simone & Zoe Saldana - The Politics of COLOR

Shadow and Act By Tanya Steele | Shadow and Act May 23, 2013 at 4:27PM

Nina Simone & Zoe Saldana - The Politics of COLOR
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Zoe Saldana

Last night, my good friend sent me yet another article on Zoe Saldana. I have attempted to avoid this topic but here goes.


Bottom line, people are not comfortable with Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone because they believe that Zoe is "not ethnic enough", "doesn't have Nina's features", "doesn't have Nina's nose or lips". Ummm, have you seen Zoe's features? Basically, people are saying that Zoe is not black enough to play Nina Simone. How is that determined? 

I grew up on the Jersey Shore. A darker skinned child in a family of extremely light skinned black women. Luckily, I had aunts and uncles who represented every color of the black rainbow. But, growing up on the Jersey Shore, you learn to hate your blackness very quickly. Like many of us, it has taken me years to feel and take ownership of my blackness and my beauty.

We live in a culture that deifies white women. I mean, really. White women are dripping from every movie screen in varied roles: insipid, dramatic, funny, responsible, activist, whatever, you name it, there is a white woman for you. I lived in a family where the black men dated white women. Yes, that was a helluva message to send to a little black girl. I wondered, do my Uncles not like black women? Is there something about black women that is too disgusting to date? I was scarred by that. I can't explain it but I felt it.

As an adult, I came to understand what Dr. King said, "the heart only knows another heart." Certainly, there are some people who hate themselves and won't date anything that resembles the curvature of their nose and lips. There are various psychological reasons for why someone may date outside of their race. But, ultimately, I believe, as Dr. King said, "a heart only knows another heart." After years of waking up to the same person, seeing them in the worst light, having someone have your back and help you get through the everyday; if you sustain years of that, color is meaningless.

Nina Simone

I have listened to Zoe Saldana. She is a pretty fierce woman. Have you listened to her?! She is claiming her blackness and her right to portray Nina Simone. She is saying that she is a black woman and has every right to play Nina. What else does she need to say?! She isn't saying, "I don't have Nina's features so I can't play her." She is saying, I have Nina's features, I am a black woman. And, she said, if Elizabeth Taylor can play Cleopatra, I can play Nina Simone. Yes! Basically, if a white woman can play a black woman, certainly she, as a black woman, can play a black woman.

In a recent BET interview, Ms. Saldana also stated that she believes there are "no people of color". I can't put words in her mouth but I think she was saying that she resists how people are categorized. She, perhaps, was trying to say that people should be judged by their character and not their skin color. For those looking to find fault with her, they jumped on this without giving it much thought. We all would like that to be the goal.

However, we live in America where 'color construction' is real. Color matters. It places one set of human beings above another. And, impacts us financially, emotionally, psychologically, etc. Her views feel a bit naive. And, I can't imagine anyone having that view after having portrayed Nina Simone. It will be interesting to see her field questions during interviews for the film. But, this does not negate her right to portray Nina. I want every actor who portrays one of our best to be as fearless as they were. I want Denzel to be Malcolm X. Ain't happening. They are actors, simply, delivering glimpses of our heroes.

We live in an era where the Obamas are lecturing to black students AS THEY GRADUATE COLLEGE. These students are not drop-outs. These students are not "welfare queens". These are the BEST and THE BRIGHTEST who have achievement in their eyes. And, have beat the odds. Why, oh why, do they need to be lectured to about responsibility? Why are they not being applauded, told of their fierceness and being given instruction on how to navigate the racist world they are about to enter. The best thing the Obamas can do is offer these students the tools that they used to navigate the culture. Not talk down to them. These students should be praised and given wings.

I am tired of the dual messaging. I am tired of "celebrity" (yes, the Obamas among them) skirting the issue of racism. It's real. It's not imagined. Even in their high brow world, it exists. And, they are a shining example of how we can navigate the culture. But, because they act is if "it's all good", we are left scratching our heads wondering why the majority of black folks are still suffering on the margins. Hello! The playing field is not even and the "celebrities" are not addressing this because they're comfortable. Well, except for Kanye West, whose music I dig. But, his Kim Kardashian choice has left me scratching my head. Not because she is white (or, whatever she is) but because she represents the system that Kanye is railing against.

Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Harriet Tubman, etc., I could go on. These darker skinned black Americans experienced life through a different lens. I got that. I understand that. And, lighter skinned black women cannot speak to my experience as a darker skinned black woman. But, our overall experience connects us because we are black women. We have to find the bridge that is going to bring us together as women of varied shades.

Their is a high degree of 'colorism' that still exists among black folks. It's in how we date. What we value. What we see as ugly or pretty. What we consider "fine". We have some deep, ugly issues that need to be addressed. And, the casting of Zoe is bringing it all to the surface. The controversy is happening because Zoe is a woman. Hell, Denzel played Malcolm X. Uhhh, hello, did we compare their complexions and features?! NO! We just let Denzel do his job! I am still wondering how Tyler Perry has received such a pass, dressing in prosthetics, donning a wig and making a joke of older black women.

We want a woman to play Nina, who looks like Nina, because we know how much it takes to prize a woman who looks like Nina. We know the pain it takes to accept and love our features that resemble Nina's. I also know that we need to see more dark skinned black women on the big screen. We need to see a dark skinned black woman, on the screen, front and center, who is not downtrodden and forlorn. I got that.

But, I am not going to malign Ms. Saldana for accepting a job. Instead, I will appreciate that she is saying, "yes, this is who I am." Zoe playing Nina adds a complexity to the discussion that forces us to say, "we, black women, are all one". Zoe is standing in the mirror stating, "I am Nina and you are, too." And, the haters are saying, "No, you aren't Nina. You aren't black like she is." In essence, they are saying, "Neither am I." Nina is other- even in the realm of black womanhood. DEEP!

I am an ardent Nina Simone fan. She is one of my SHEROES. Few outdo Nina. On every level. Intelligence. Conviction. Beauty. Raging against the machine. Unapologetic blackness. Brilliance. Genius. Madness. All of it. It's all there. You do not live in black skin, in a female body, in america, with that level of genius and not scrape the depths of despair. I can imagine that, although a "successful" black actress in Hollywood, Zoe Saldana has experienced racism. It will be interesting to see how she evolves.

In a sea of Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, all these children trying to look like a barbie doll, Zoe is saying, I am black and I am proud of it. And, I connect with my sisters on a human level. We are in this together, no matter what shade, what hair length, what road we have taken. We are black women who have a shared experience. It doesn't matter where on the 'black features' scale you fall. You are encased in your experience as a black woman. And, Nina Simone was one of our best.

Nina Simone, in many ways, has saved my life, my sanity. She grounds me. She is the voice that says, 'you are not alone'. Listen to her interviews. See what she stands for. Listen to 'Four Women' and how she connects all black women. ALL! It is heartbreaking genius. What are we doing? What is the argument really about? We have to do some soul searching, here. Okay, Zoe wore prosthetics. I don't care. It's about her soul, her intention, her performance. Did you see 'La Vie En Rose' about the life of Edith Piaf? Marion Cotillard played Edith. Marion looked nothing like Piaf. They put her in make-up and wigs and maybe even prosthetics. You didn't hear the french say, "she is not french enough to play Edith Piaf"!

I don't play when it comes to Ms. Nina. And, I will rail against this film if it is an abomination. But, I am willing to wait. I want to give Zoe the chance to bring some of Nina's brilliance to the screen. Many said, "how about Viola Davis, or, or, or…". I'm sure Viola could have rocked it, blown it out of the universe, if she didn't play the 'victim' note.

You see, the thing about Zoe is, she speaks her truth. She speaks her mind and heart. She's pretty fearless. I don't know many black women celebrities who, in these times, are doing that. It is not enough to say, yes, I am a black woman. It is more powerful to say, I am ALL black women. You better be coming with a royal fierceness to play Nina, and, so far, I've seen hints of it in Zoe.

No one will ever capture the full Nina. She was one of a kind. But, we will get a glimpse of her. And, perhaps, little black girls (and boys) like me, who grew up on the Jersey Shore (or wherever) will get to know Nina Simone sooner and will take years of self-hatred off of their lives.

**I will not comment on Nina Simone's daughter's views about Zoe Saldana portraying her mother. I cannot imagine how she must feel. A clear choice would have been Nina's daughter. And, I believe her disagreement is about the screenplay. I am on board with that argument. I believe in truth and authenticity in the screenplay. Again, if the movie is an abomination, I will rage against it!**

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SteeleInk. Or visit digtanya.com.


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