The Problem with Casting Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone Isn't Race — It's Colorism

This isn't about Zoe Saldana being "black enough."
Publish date:
March 4, 2016
movies, racism, colorism, Nina Simone

There's nothing like a juicy, unauthorized biopic. I watched Lifetime's Whitney (okay) and Aaliyah (terrible) films, and am hooked on Ryan Murphy's The People v. OJ Simpson. Often times, the stories the family would prefer not be told are the exact ones that fans yearn for. This is why Cynthia Mort's biographic film Nina about the romantic relationship that arose between singer Nina Simone and her nurse turned manager Clifton Henderson (played by David Oyelowo) is such a tragedy.

Lisa Kelly, Nina's daughter, objected to the film and called it inaccurate because Henderson was gay. My issue with the film isn't the content, though. For me, that's not a deal breaker. Life is complicated, human interactions even more so. Rather, like many other Nina Simone fans, I'm irked by Bob Johnson, whose company acquired the North American rights to the film, and director Cynthia Mort, for their insensitivity in casting and supporting Zoe Saldana as the film's lead.

Born in North Carolina in 1933, Nina yearned to train as a classical pianist. Her first recital at age twelve, was marred when her parents were moved to the back row to make room for a white family. With help from supporters from her hometown, she was able to study at Juilliard School of Music before applying to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. However, her dreams were dashed when the school denied her admission. According to her website, she always felt she wasn't admitted because of her race.

Nina rose to popularity as a singer in the late 50s. Later, she became heavily involved in the civil rights movement. She was particularly affected by the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, and was inspired to write "Mississippi Goddam," a song that was boycotted in the South as well as other civil rights anthems such as "Backlash Blues," and "Young, Gifted and Black." Simone was friends with a number of prominent civil rights activists of the day. Malcolm X was the godfather to her only child Lisa, who was raised alongside the Shabazz children.

"My mother suffered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and people told her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide. It's very important the world acknowledges my mother was a classical musician whose dreams were not realized because of racism," Lisa Kelly said in a 2015 interview with the

An essential part of Simone's identity was not just that she was a black woman, but that she was a dark-skinned black woman who suffered because of it. This is why casting Zoe Saldana a caramel-colored black woman of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent is wrong.

I like Zoe Saldana as an actress. I'm sure that she is a fan of Nina Simone and was thrilled with the opportunity to expand her range as an actress in the role. Still, Zoe Saldana in skin darkening makeup as Nina Simone is wrong. Zoe Saldana wearing a nose prosthetic as Nina Simone is wrong. Not because Zoe Saldana isn't "black enough" as some claim. Zoe Saldana is without argument, a black woman. The issue isn't her race. The issue is colorism.

Colorism describes the tendency to perceive or behave negatively towards members of a racial category based on the lightness or darkness of their skin tone. And it is as ugly and damaging as racism. Studies have shown that people with lighter skin receive preference in the hiring process, earn more money, and serve less jail time than those with dark complexions. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, colorism translates to better jobs and opportunities for actresses with lighter complexions.

Actress Viola Davis said it best, "The paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. Hollywood simply does not view dark-brown actresses as women who are desirable by men," she says. "That's the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn't be in the realm of anything that men should desire," Davis explained.

Nina Simone was a genius. Her legacy should honor her work as a musician and as an unapologetic African American woman who fought for equality – even to the detriment of her career. Skin paint, a fake nose, an Afro wig – to me that sounds like a clown costume. As one of the greatest musicians and activists of our times, Nina Simone deserves better.