Simone was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about black women who looked like her. And for that she enjoyed a special place in the pantheon of resistance. That fact doesn’t just have to do with her lyrics or her musicianship, but also how she looked.
From “Nina Simone’s Face,” Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Atlantic, March 15, 2016
Let’s be clear, Zoe Saldana (ne Saldaña) is a black woman. Her father was Dominican and her mother is Puerto Rican. In the Dominican Republic, where she lived as a child, Saldana might be considered India Canela (Cinnamon Indian). Dominican notions of blackness, ones that often distort obvious African roots, are problematic, but that’s a whole other story. Why Zoe decided to change the spelling and pronunciation of her original last name, Saldaña—otro cuento.
Readers are probably familiar with the roiling controversy over Saldana’s casting as Nina Simone, the legendary African-American singer-composer and civil rights activist, in the biopic Nina. In the Dominican Republic, Simone would have probably been characterized as India Oscura (Dark Indian). And, therein lies the foundation of the controversy. In order for Saldana to look like Simone, her skin was darkened (arguably, like Blackface) and a prosthetic was attached to broaden her nose. Should the film and casting directors have selected someone like Viola Davis or Lupita Nyong’o? I doubt Blackface or a nose prosthetic would’ve been required. Would either have brought better music performance skills? I don’t know and I’m not sure it would’ve mattered either, because I believe Ta-Nehisi Coates has it right—the controversy is essentially about looks à la Hollywood.
Nina Simone was an icon of my generation. “Mississippi Goddam,” “Young, Gifted and Black,” the haunting “Pirate Jenny” and other compositions resonate with me to this day. Beyond the force of performance artistry, her lyrics were a clarion call to resistance, to action. I’m glad that documentaries and the current biopic were produced. Moviegoers need to know about Nina Simone and her difficult life and legacy.
When Jennifer López was cast to play the Tejano music superstar Selena Quintanilla in the biopic Selena (1997), I thought many in my community were going to lose their minds. How dare the Puerto Rican López be cast in this role! As it turned out, J. Lo did a pretty damn good job in capturing the spirit and vocal style of Selena, and no physical alterations were required to achieve authenticity.
In these days of a whitewashed Hollywood, it is imperative to have stories told about the experiences and contributions of people of color. And, the dialogue needs to go beyond #OscarsSoWhite, a recent manifestation of the imposed black-white master narrative impacting popular culture in this country. If African Americans feel cast aside by tinsel town, you can imagine how Latinos feel about the veritable invisibility to which we have been relegated by the movie industry.
So, who will claim Zoe Saldana? Despite her lighter skin, one would be hard pressed to argue that she’s not African American. Saldana was born in New Jersey and has lived most of her life in metro New York. She is not unlike millions of Latinas and Latinos in this country who are African-descended. It is possible to be Latina and African American at the same time. In today’s United States, these are not mutually exclusive identity constructs.
It’s clear that there will only be one Nina Simone. For me, an important question is whether Zoe did Nina justice. My sense is that the music performance is mostly passable, but the film doesn’t go deep enough into Simone as civil right activist—a real shame.
An important takeaway from this controversy is that the movie industry must pay closer attention to detail, and not resort to the patently outdated and offensive techniques of Blackface and prosthetics to achieve fabricated likeness. Certainly, we have come far enough as a culture to avoid employing the mechanics of perilous and hurtful masquerade.
On the other hand, I question Saldana’s decision to take the part in the first place. Traditional Hollywood practice demonstrates that we do not live in a post-racial society. Dark skin and facial features matter. Saldana knows this and must have intuited that her decision would end up detracting from what should have otherwise been a rousing cinematic memorial to a beloved American icon.
The Hollywood café con leche conundrum is real. Coffee comes in all roasts and shades. The Cubans, in particular, are known for their cortados, a mix of espresso and warm milk. You can have it oscurito (darker) or clarito (lighter, more milk). Popular culture image-makers need to start ordering more of the former. After all, it’s about the coffee.
Copyright 2016 by Eduardo Díaz. Mr. Díaz is director of the Smithsonian’s Latino Center. All photos are in the public domain or, in the case of the album cover, used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law.