The color complex is a taboo phenomenon African Americans know far too well. Although it’s often an intra-racial mechanism of discrimination, our community’s struggle with colorism pervades mainstream assumptions of appropriate forms of blackness as well, hence the perpetual whitewashing of Hollywood. The lives of the rich and famous are shrouded by color politics.
This controversial topic currently has the entertainment industry buzzing as Zoe Saldana prepares to portray Nina Simone in the biopic “Nina.” Saldana, the Afro-Latina actress known for her roles in “Avatar” and the upcoming film “The Words,” is slated to appear in the motion picture as it tells the story of the woman known as the High Priestess of Soul.
Nina Simone’s cinematic transition remains unauthorized by the late singer’s estate.
For the those of you unfamiliar with the issue of such a casting, allow me to paint a picture of Ms. Simone. The classically trained preacher’s daughter ascended to fame in the mid 1960s, a revolutionary period in which her appearance echoed the Black Power movement as it, too, rose to prominence. The essence of her time, Simone’s raven Afro and ebony skin spoke of African diasporic excellence in its most natural form. However, her particular brand of beauty presented professional challenges that only seemed to come in shades of black.
After finishing her high school education, the gifted pianist auditioned at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, PA. Despite an exemplary performance, Simone was rejected not only due to her race but due to her rather “ethnic” features as well.
“As a child [Simone] was told her nose was too big and she was too dark,” said her daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroude. The world of classical music had little room for deviation and Simone’s physical appearance did not fit the bill. Speaking of her mother once more, Stroude stated, “Had [Simone] become a classical pianist, which was her dream … shattered, I doubt she would have found her true destiny. Nina Simone was a voice of her people.”
I hate the idea of questioning anyone’s blackness, but we have to consider that casting a light-skinned woman in a role marked by color discrimination is to make a caricature of Simone’s biography. Had this film been a work of fiction, Saldana’s casting as an imagined black woman would be a non-issue. However, “Nina” is the retelling of a life and placing Saldana in the titular role is a byproduct of the public’s narrowing frame of mind in terms of Black female beauty.
Consider biographical portrayals of African-American women in the past. In Martha Coolidge’s “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” Halle Berry was perfectly cast as the fair-skinned screen siren. When Oprah Winfrey announced that her studio would produce a Lena Horne biopic, Alicia Keys was to play the role of the songbird.
There is no issue finding actresses to play the parts of women on the lighter end of the color spectrum. However, when it comes time to fill roles of dark-skinned women, suddenly the talent disappears.
The media continues to alter the face of African-American beauty to make us more palatable to the public. When our features are deemed unfit for mainstream standards of beauty, it fuels the perception that black women are less acceptable in relationship to females of other ethnic groups. Idealized images of feminine beauty portrayed in the media have created a crooked room of light skin, European features, and long hair in which few Black women can stand.
But as Nina Simone sang in the first line of the 1966 female anthem “Four Women,” “my skin is black,” and regardless of how Hollywood recreates her image, the truth of her experience cannot be denied.