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Why The Outrage Over The Nina Simone Biopic Has Nothing To Do With Zoe Saldana

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NINA MOVIE
RLJ Entertainment
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Yes, this movie is really being made.

The Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana was more or less forgotten after behind the scenes stills were released in 2013 of Saldana on set portraying the iconic musician in a bad kinky wig, caked-on dark makeup and a cartoonish prosthetic nose. The uproar against Saldana being cast to play a woman whom she, evidently, looks nothing like was resounding. And since nothing was heard in the months following, I guess people assumed the project had been compassionately put to sleep.

The trailer "Nina" was released last week and it renewed criticism of the miscasting from the black community including Simone's own family and estate. And along with it came defence of Saldana that called criticizers out for implying the Afro-Latina actress isn't black enough for the role.

But here's the thing, the outrage has nothing at all to do with Saldana and "how black" she is or isn't -- it has everything to do with Nina Simone.

Her entire catalogue was driven by her pride in her blackness and wanting to uplift black people and none of this is to say that Saldana isn't black enough to play the role, but she's not a dark-skinned black American-born woman.

Simone sang "Black is the Color of My True Love's Skin", " Four Women", "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free", "Chain Gang", and "Blackbird". She set the soundtrack to the civil rights era and sacrificed her career and mainstream success in order to do it.

Her entire catalogue was driven by her pride in her blackness and wanting to uplift black people and none of this is to say that Saldana isn't black enough to play the role, but she has not lived the same kind of life Simone did.

For artists, the first place you go to build these lessons and lyrics, is your own experience. Simone was a dark-skinned black woman. Her nose was broad, her skin was dark and her lips were full, and, especially because of these features, she was not seen as conventionally pretty. She was mature, soulful, wise and utterly beautiful. And her appearance and the way she was viewed by the world had everything to do with the music she created.

At the time, many successful black female performers were women like Eartha Kitt, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Etta James, Josephine Baker -- all light-skinned women, many of whom could pass for white to some degree. Then came Miss Simone -- an unquestionably black, dark-skinned woman who still infiltrated white clubs and concert halls playing classical piano and singing.

I am light-skinned and I'll tell you right now I've never had to experience the type of bigotry that darker-skinned black women have to deal with. I am seen as less threatening, more exotic, and more welcomed because when you look at lighter skin and anglo-features, it's not a far jump from white. And with her narrow nose, Latina heritage, and fair skin, Saldana can evade blackness in some settings. People can look at her, and me for that matter, and cherry-pick the parts of our appearance that make them most comfortable. And none of this is Saldana's fault, but it's still a fact.

But by casting someone who looks so unlike Simone, but has whiter, more favoured features erases her in her own movie. That just doesn't make sense.

No one can ever look at Simone and see anything but black, and growing up being viewed and treated as such informed her work. She was unapologetically black and it made her music what it was. Simone put out songs that fought the erasure black people faced daily and encouraged us to find a sense of self.

But by casting someone who looks so unlike Simone, but has whiter, more favoured features erases her in her own movie. That just doesn't make sense.

It's not as though Saldana can't make her best efforts as an actress to try and put herself in Simone's dark skin and embody her character, but why is she needed to do that when there are so many other actresses who have lived this life themselves.

A woman like Viola Davis, who has been acting in guest spots for decades and only now claiming fierce lead roles like Annalise Keating that aren't normally given to black women.

Or Lauryn Hill who's own life was as tumultuous and passion-driven as Simone's.

Or really any dark skinned black woman who has lived the life Nina Simone did as a dark-skinned, not conventionally pretty, woman.

That's not something you can act, teach or mimic as well as if you live it.

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