Last year, black folks were concerned when it was announced Zoe Saldana was cast as the iconic, Nina Simone. Folks worst fears were confirmed when the trailer for “Nina” was released this past weekend.
A lot of the criticism has focused on Saldana basically engaging in black face to portray the high priestess of soul. It’s considered offensive because Simone’s music was dedicated to speaking out against the marginalization of black folks, specifically darker skinned black folks. The (hideous) makeup job makes a mockery of her life’s work.
My other issue with the trailer is the story line of an “out of control” Simone. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the mental health struggles of Simone. Honestly, I did not know this was something that affected her life, until recently. It’s not talked about when folks praise the legendary singer. I think mental health needs to be discussed more in the black community. Two groups I follow do an excellent job supporting black folks and mental health (No More Martyrs and Black Mental Health Alliance for Education & Consultation, Inc.) Artist Erykah Badu recently highlighted bi-polar/depression at a fashion show. So, folks are working hard to bring more awareness to this important issue.
However, I find it interesting the writer-director decided to focus solely on this aspect of Simone’s life. It was not surprising to learn that the writer-director is a white woman (Cynthia Mort). It makes sense why she used black face to represent Simone. White women tend not to relate to the beauty struggles black women, particularly darker skinned black women, face under white supremacy. It makes sense why Mort zeroed in on the “breakdown” of Simone. She could not see the brilliance of Simone without framing it in a stereotypical “crazy” black woman caricature. Simone was regarded as a child progeny. She had to deal with harsh racism while growing up. Imagine the pain navigating oppression when you are a gifted black child. I’m sure Simone’s mental health problems were exacerbated dealing with the daily abuse of white racism. But a film like that probably wouldn’t get the green light.
As far as Saldana, she should know better. Simone’s daughter has defended her in this role. I’m sure some of it is genuine support, but Simone’s daughter also has not found closure with her mother. She has talked about Simone being an abusive/neglectful parent. It’s probably hard for her to look at the bigger picture of why Saldana was not a good fit for this role. Celebrities like Queen Latifah and Paula Patton have stood up for Salanda, but they are doing so in case they ever want to look ridiculous on film. You know celebrity egos.
The problem is Saldana tends to flip flop on the subject of racism (colorblind rhetoric). And yes, she’s tends to say she is a “black Latina,” but often celebrates her Latina side/declare she is more than “just black.”This is not someone who needed to represent Nina Simone, a consistently proud black woman.