Films / Race / Women and Gender

The Zoe Saldana / Nina Simone Biopic Controversy Illustrates the Need for More Black Women Filmmakers

Originally published at Bitch Flicks.

When Zoe Saldana was recently cast as legendary singer Nina Simone in her upcoming biopic, the decision ignited a firestorm of controversy. People have vehemently criticized the decision. Not because Saldana isn’t a skilled actor (she is). But because her skin is much lighter than the music icon.

I’ve wanted to write about this topic for awhile now. But how can I, a white woman, do justice to the complex issue of race?

I’ll never know discrimination or oppression based on the color of my skin. But I realized that while the whitewashing of Hollywood remains an ongoing conversation in the black community, it’s not a discussion amongst everyone. And it should be.

Nina Simone’s daughter Simone spoke to Ebony about why skin color should matter in the casting of her mother’s biopic:

“I can guarantee that the sense of insecurity and the questioning of one’s beauty that results from a grownup telling you that as a child you’re too black and your nose is too wide, remained with her [her mother Nina Simone] for the rest of her life.”

At The Huffington Post, Nicole Moore writes about Nina Simone and the “erasure of black women in film”:

“Because Simone’s blackness extended as much to her musical prowess as to her physicality and image, it’s perplexing that the film’s production team, led by Jimmy Iovine, expects anyone, particularly in the black community, to (re)imagine Nina Simone as fair-skinned, thin-lipped and narrow-nosed? I guess if you look at Hollywood’s history of casting black female roles, especially in biopics, it’s not all that surprising.”

Hollywood has a massive race and gender problem. Black women’s bodies belong to a dichotomy suffering from either fetishization or erasure. When black women appear in media, which doesn’t happen nearly enough, they suffer from stereotypes of mammies, jezebels and sapphires. And too many producers and directors clearly don’t understand the nuances of race, thinking any person of color will suffice.

Clutch Magazine’s Britni Danielle writes about the biopic and Hollywood’s massive misunderstanding and insensitivity when it comes to women and race:

“In the past few years Hollywood has consistently gotten it wrong when it comes to telling black women’s narratives. From the questionable choice of casting Thandie Newton as an Igbo woman in the film adaptation of the novel Half of a Yellow Sun and Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela, to Jacqueline Fleming, a biracial woman, playing Harriet Tubman, when other people are in charge of portraying us, it seems like any brown face will do.”

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates also finds the “bleaching of Nina Simone” problematic and reinforcing systemic racism:

“But this casting (with no shot taken at Saldana) manages to both erase the specific kind of racism Simone contended with and at the same time empower it.”  

Most white people probably don’t realize the painful history of colorism and skin shade hierarchy — dark vs. light skin — black women continually face. When the media portrays black women, we often see women with lighter skin and more Caucasian features. Both L’Oreal and Elle photoshopped black women — Beyonce and Gabby Sidibe — to make their skin appear much lighter. In film, advertisements and magazine spreads, the media often whitewashes black women, continually perpetuating the unachievable attainment of the white ideal of beauty.

At The Daily Beast, Allison Samuels writes about “the myth of black beauty” and skin color:

“Skin color and its importance around the world—and particularly in the African-American community—has been a hot-button issue for generations. The debate over skin color and its painful origins dates back to the days of slavery, when lighter skin often equaled a better overall quality of life. With more pronounced European features, bearers of a lighter complexion were also considered more attractive than their darker-skinned peers. Possessing this trait was believed to open the cracked doors of opportunity ever wider.”

Due to white privilege, white people don’t agonize over their skin color. We don’t have to worry if someone will harass us or follow us around in a department store, thinking we’re going to steal merchandise simply because of our skin. If we move, we don’t have to worry about finding neighbors who don’t like us because of our skin color. We don’t have to fret over something as simple as putting on a Band-Aid which won’t match our skin tone.

My point is this: we don’t ever have to think about race. Sure, we can if we want to. But we don’t have to. And therein lies the privilege.

But Spectra, an amazing Afrofeminist writer, asserts the dark vs. light skin in the Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone biopic debate misses the point about black women in the media. She poses that black women must create media in order to reclaim and tell their own stories:

“The hard truth is this: if we spent more time creating media instead of criticizing it, there’d be way more diversity in representation, and way more stories and perspectives to which white people can be more frequently held accountable.

“Pushing for ownership of both the infrastructure and content that portrays our lived experiences – that is the crux of the issue; not just the politics of light vs. dark-skinned actresses. So, whereas I am completely on board with calling out the colorism behind the biopic’s casting choices (and the harmful message that’s being sent to young, dark-skinned black girls everywhere by having a light-skinned woman play Nina Simone) there aren’t enough strong lead roles written for women of color in Hollywood for me to fairly tell Zoe Saldana, a hard-working, talented brown woman to ”sit this one out.”

Here at Bitch Flicks, we talk a lot about the need for more female filmmakers and women-centric films. One of the takeaways from the Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone controversy is that we desperately need more women of color filmmakers.

The Help crystallizes Hollywood’s problem with black women. Sure, we see strong and complex black women telling their stories of discrimination and hardship to writer Skeeter (Emma Stone). But even in a film containing the inarguably talented Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer giving phenomenal Oscar nominated and Oscar-winning performances, it still remains a racially problematic film. Even in a film that supposedly champions black women, it ultimately revolves around a white female protagonist’s perspective.

While women filmmakers don’t merely depict female protagonists, when more women are behind the camera, we tend to see more women in front of the camera. Looking back at this year’s movies, female-fronted films such as Brave, The Hunger Games, Prometheus, and Snow White and the Huntsman graced the big screen. We saw women-centric indies like Your Sister’s Sister, Take This Waltz, For a Good Time Call… and Bachelorette. We even witnessed strong women in male-dominated movies like Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises and Black Widow in The Avengers.

But when you look at the female protagonists — aside from Beasts of the Southern Wild, Sparkle, The Lady, Girl in Progress and Celeste and Jesse Forever which all featured women of color in lead roles — you’ll notice their overwhelming whiteness.

Perhaps if we had more black women filmmakers, we would see more nuanced and diverse depictions of black women on-screen.

Now, that doesn’t mean white women and men can’t or shouldn’t write strong, complex black female characters. But it does mean white people have to stop appropriating black women’s narratives, especially if we’re not going to take the time to attempt to understand the intricate and painful complexities of the light vs. dark skin stigma. And we’ve got to stop pretending we live in a post-racial society. We don’t.

We need more films from black female directors like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees and Julie Dash. But we aren’t seeing enough black women in front of or behind the camera. In her Women and Hollywood cross-post, Evette Dionne wonders “where are the black women film directors?” She explores the “exile of black women film directors” by studios that refuse to fund their work.

“So black women, one of the most sought after audience demographics for movie studios, aren’t behind the camera providing insight into our culture. This leads to a misrepresentation of the black community on the silver screen. Often, we are caricatures of ourselves, as evidenced in Jumping the Broom and other projects, which leads to resentment for what the media machine represents in our communities.”

When a young black female tennis player is told she’s too fat to receive funding, when the Swedish Minister of Culture and rapper 2Chainz eat racist cakes of dismembered black women’s bodies, when the media cares more about criticizing Olympic gold-medal winning gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair than her performance — we as a society clearly have a fucked-up, racist and misogynistic problem denigrating and oppressing black women.

Last year, I had the overwhelming privilege of meeting one of my feminist idols, Professor Melissa Harris-Perry (squee!!). After her brilliant and empowering speech on her must-read book Sister Citizen, she graciously stayed afterwards and spoke to each and every person. When I finally got my chance to talk to her, I gushed about how much I loved her and how she needed her own TV show and this was BEFORE her fantastic MSNBC weekend show was announced!). I also asked her how to be a good ally to women of color. She gave the simplest yet hardest advice of all. Listen. When in a room with women of color, she said to be silent, listen and let them speak for themselves. When you find yourself in a space with no women of color, that’s when you need to speak up.

So we white women (and men) need to speak up against racism.

When people talk about the need for more women in media — sadly, they often mean white women. Many of us who write about the need for women’s representation in film or women-created media feel satisfaction when we see white female leads on-screen and white female writers and directors.

But that’s got to change. We need films to portray women of all races, created by women of all races. Not just white women and think we’ve somehow achieved some semblance of equity.

White women and men filmmakers need to realize the damage they wreak when they only cast light skinned black women (if they cast women of color at all), especially in a biopic of a famous black woman with dark skin.

It’s time for us white women to listen. Listen to black women. Listen to their needs and wants and support them from the sidelines. We can’t merely be satisfied when any woman stands on-screen. Black women must be behind the camera, telling their own stories.

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4 thoughts on “The Zoe Saldana / Nina Simone Biopic Controversy Illustrates the Need for More Black Women Filmmakers

  1. So bloody well written — thank you for using your space to gently nudge more white feminists to consider their privilege in media conversations, and their silence on this issue as well, which hasn’t gone unnoticed. Thanks, also from highlighting woc perspectives on this issue, and pulling from their commentary proposed solutions for white ally community. Really well done. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and will share with my networks.

  2. Saldana isn’t the least bit “light-skinned”—she’s a lovely brown-skinned woman who only looks light in that picture because there’s light shining on her—anybody who’s seen her in films knows she’s nowhere near light-skinned. That said, I can understand why a lot of folks don’t want to see her play Nina, as she looks nothing like her, but I’ve seen many an actor who looks nothing like the real person they’re playing still get the role and play the hell out of it. Maybe she could pull ot off if they don’t get anyone else for the part,maybe she can’t; who knows? Let’s wait and see.

    • geesh, Saldana is very much a fair skinned African American with mixed heritage. I understand what you are coming from but it doesn’t apply in this case. By not casting an actor that resembles Nina, the movie is taking away from the hardships that Nina Simone faced. Nina Simone was a dark-skinned African American with an afro that did not have the Hollywood look. It’s like casting Halle Berry to play Harriet Tubman. It’s not about if Zoe can actually pull it off, it’s about whitewashing history.

  3. I totally agree with you Kaya, why not give a new actress a chance to play this role. Someone that does look like Nina Simone. I don’t know if you watch the Walking Dead but they have an actress that I have never seen before cast as a dark black African women as a warrior and a surviver. She looks more like Nina Simone. Our have an audition for the right Actress to play Nina Simone. Hollywood is so stuck on white but white does not always mean better.

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