Somewhere in heaven Nina Simone is having deep conversations with whomever cares to listen about this movie. I bet she is not happy about it either. I am not happy about it, a lot of us are not happy about it but here we are and Hollywood is at it again. A lot of outrage has been expressed about this movie, most directed at Zoe Saldana the lead actress who replaces Mary J Blige after she dropped out of the project. I get the outrage, sometimes you expect more from someone, not much, but a semblance of common sense and gumption… is that the word? I don’t know, but you expect them to have that something more especially when it comes to situations like this. A moral compass of the sorts, but I suppose that is the lesson here.
Nina Simone was a legendary musician whose voice, words, and sound were one of a kind and remain relevant today. Her music was activism, her words gave power to the movement, she was the foremost activist of Black Lives Matter, she sang songs that celebrated our blackness, that encouraged us to never doubt our black was beautiful. Black- she was unapologetically that and so much more. Our Black is who we are, telling our stories is important to us. Telling it right is important and reflecting our reality, telling it with truth is important. Nina Simone, through her music and her life, never let us forget that. She was mocked for her looks, ostracised from the main stream because of her colour therefore to understand this outrage you have to understand the woman that was Nina Simone. You see where I’m coming from? Where we are coming from? Zoe Saldana is not the woman to play Nina Simone. It is a terrible casting. But the issue is not merely her problem, not wholly, it is, in some respects, no one should be willing to wear black face for any reason whatsoever, its offensive.
But this is to a greater extent a Hollywood issue, for too long a time now Hollywood has been telling us that we cannot tell our stories, it has to be wrapped in some false ideal of the great white hope. If the black man isn’t the drug dealer, he’s the slave and at the mercy of the great white saviour. Its not so much that Saldana isn’t right for the role, yes she is a black woman of Puerto-Rican origin, but the issue here is bigger than that and obvious- playing pretend does not hide the fact that Hollywood is institutionally racist, no matter how many times they have a black man host the Oscars. There is a whole roaster of black actresses they could have, should have cast in place of Mary J Blige- Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, India Arie, Kimberley Elise, Adepero Oduye (my personal favourite to play Simone at whatever age)… but they choose to go with a light skin actress and throw her in black face make up and a prosthetic nose to troll us hard. At that point, Saldana should have bowed out of the movie. That is what was expected of her.
Then there are the people behind the scenes, the ones who pull the strings- writer, producers, make up artists, directors- they are just as culpable as the actors and actresses on our screens, even more so. The thing about movies, actors and actresses, and what it appears Hollywood does not understand, is that they serve or should serve as an education for us, a history lesson about those whose stories have shaped our reality and times long gone. Simone was a woman who was proudly black, one who celebrated blackness through her music, used it to shut her nay sayers, up. Her life is not merely a story, its our story, our history, a reflection of the times we still currently live in. Ours. Her dark skin colour was her pride, her nose a part of her identity, how do they not understand that?