.@zoesaldana Cool story but please take Nina's name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.
— Nina Simone (@NinaSimoneMusic) March 3, 2016
This week, the trailer for the oft delayed Nina Simone biopic “Nina,” starring actress Zoe Saldana in the title role, was released. The film has been steeped in controversy and criticism since the announcement that the Dominican-American actress had been cast to play the legend. Critics most notably cite the glaring contrast in Simone’s complexion and features and Saldana’s, a hurdle the film awkwardly attempts to overcome with makeup and a prosthetic nose. Simone’s own daughter noted that her mother “was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” adding, “Zoe Saldana portraying her [Nina Simone] is a bad joke because there are more gifted actresses who are more in keeping with my mother’s appearance.”
That Hollywood is so disinterested in bringing authenticity and dignity to the stories of black people never becomes easier to swallow. That Zoe Saldana, a black woman, would agree to not only play this woman to whom she bares absolutely no resemblance, but agree to don blackface and a fake nose to do so is maddening. But though the physical differences in the two women are the most obvious problem with the casting choice, I am most concerned not with Saldana’s looks, but with her passive-at-best acceptance of her blackness, an attribute which Nina Simone screamed, sang, embraced and loved.
Saldana has proudly claimed her Latina heritage. Acknowledgements of her blackness, though, are clumsy at best, the words “I am black woman” falling from her lips with the grace of elephant doing ballet, seemingly used solely to defend herself against criticism over playing Simone. Other times, she skates around inquiries into her blackness, seeming insulted to even have questions about her racial heritage posed. For instance, when asked about her intersecting Latina and black identities in an interview with Glamour magazine’s Belleza Latina, the actress replied, “I am proud to be Latina. I will not accept [anyone] telling me that I’m less or whatever, because to me, that is just hysterical. But I don’t like to break and divide myself into all these small little categories like, ‘I’m an American, a woman, a Latina, a black Latina.’ No. I am Zoe.” This casual denial of her race is is both insulting and convenient, as her career was partially built on roles which called specifically for black women, such as a student at a historically black university in “Drumline” or the daughter of the undeniably black Bernie Mac in “Guess Who.”
But knowing that Saldana grew up partially in the Dominican Republic, her distancing of herself from blackness reveals itself as more than just opportune.
In my sophomore year in college, I took a course titled “Literature of the African Diaspora.” Over the 16-week semester, the professor introduced me to writings and films about the black experience all over the world. Most memorable of these readings is Edwidge Danticot’s “The Farming of Bones,” a harrowing fictionalized account of the Parsley Massacre (a six-day killing spree carried out in 1937 against ethnic Haitians in the Dominican Republic under the order and leadership of Dominican President Rafael Leonidas Trujillo).
Many times before reading this novel, and many more times since, people with dark skin and ethnically black features have told me, “I’m Dominican, not black.” “The Farming of Bones” pushed me to explore why black people of Dominican descent often feel a need to make a bold declaration of their identity, ensuring it’s absolutely clear that they are not black. I learned that kind anti-black sentiment bred by a man who ordered the execution of thousands of black bodies in under a week becomes entrenched in a culture, passed down and exported throughout the diaspora.
Saldana lived in the Dominican Republic for many of her formative years. The legacy created by Trujillo’s attempted genocide of black Haitians has documented lasting effects. Breathing in anti-blackness for years also has lasting effects. As chronicled by journalist Frances Robles and scholar Henry Louis Gates, the Dominican Republic, like the U.S., is plagued by anti-black racism. The difference though, lies in the definition of what it is to be black. In the Dominican Republic, Saldana’s relatively light skin would have distanced her from the certain blackness of dark-skinned Dominicans of Haitian descent. In the U.S., however, she lands right in the middle of the spectrum of black phenotype.
Saldana herself declared, “In my house we never talked about ‘oh, black this, gay that, woman this, lesbian that.’ It was just Fulano de Tal y Francisquita. That’s it. My mom never knew who we were going to bring to dinner at the house. Es dificil para mi hablar de este topic because it’s very foreign to me. I’ll talk about it because everybody else talks about it, but deep down, when I’m with my sisters, we don’t talk about ourselves in that way. We talk about life in food, flavors, and music. That’s how we are.” There is a definitive irony in a woman who, by her own admission, has difficulty even discussing her race to suddenly declare, “It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it, I will honor and respect my black community because that’s who I am.” That honor and respect are as temporary as the characters she plays, as the actress stated, “‘What are you, what are you’ is the most uncomfortable questionand it’s literally the most repetitive question. I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they can contribute as individuals and not what they look like.”
This “maybe I am, maybe I’m not” attitude about her blackness is the polar opposite of Nina Simone’s unabashed ownership of her blackness. The inspiring artist boldly stated to an interviewer, “I think what you’re trying to ask is why am I so insistent on giving out to them that BLACK-NESS, that black power, that black…pushing them to identify with black culture…I have no choice over it in the first place. To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, black people. And I mean that in every sense, outside and inside.” Ms. Simone was the definition of black pride. She endorsed and promoted and reveled in her chocolate skin, wide nose and full lips. She wore her blackness like an invisible suit of armor bonded to her for safe-keeping. That kind of impassioned obsession with your people cannot be “acted.” It must run through your veins. It must be fundamental to who you are. It must be ever-present and almost overbearing. Zoe Saldana does not embody that.
The conversations about Hollywood’s obsession with “blackening” through makeup are valid. Critiques of Saldana’s appropriateness to play Nina Simone because she has much lighter skin tone and less pronounced features are valid. But I want to have the entire conversation. I want to discuss how her association with blackness only when it is conducive to her agenda. I want to discuss how she managed to grow up in a country where black is a dirty word and never had discussions of race. Let’s discuss how this woman who basks in her Latina cultural heritage has trouble articulating her blackness. Let’s have the entire conversation.