Colorism is making headlines as word has spread that Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana will be cast as Nina Simone in a biopic about the late African-American singer. Saldana, star of new film "The Words," has Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage. She's light-skinned with long, flowing hair. Simone, on the other hand, was dark-skinned with cropped natural hair. Simone Kelly, daughter of the legendary songstress, says that Saldana's features make her a poor choice to play Nina Simone.
"My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark," she said. "Appearance-wise this is not the best choice."
Kelly isn't the only one who takes issue with the idea of Saldana playing Simone.
Coffee Rhetoric blogger Tiffani Jones accused Hollywood of whitewashing and "lightwashing" black stories and directed her readers to a Change.org petition calling for someone who looks more like Simone to be cast in the part. Meanwhile African studies scholar Yaba Blay told the New York Times that part of Simone's power was her aesthetic.
"This was a woman who prevailed and triumphed despite her aesthetic," Blay said. She also complained that dark-skinned actresses are all too often "erased from the media, especially in the role of the 'it girl' or the love interest."
I'm a fan of Zoe Saldana, but even I was taken aback when I heard about her probable casting as Simone. With makeup and wardrobe, can the filmmakers make Saldana more believable as Nina Simone? Sure. But this isn't as simple as casting a blonde actress to play a brunette. Overcoming racism and, by extension, colorism was part of Simone's story. She wrote about skin color in songs such as "Four Women." She also participated in the civil rights movement. While the filmmakers argue that the "Nina" biopic won't be a linear story of Simone's life, I don't see how they can tell the singer's story without addressing the discrimination she faced because of her physical appearance and racial characteristics. While Saldana has no doubt faced discrimination as a woman of color in Hollywood and colorism in and outside of the industry, she likely has not experienced the kind of rejection and disapproval that Nina Simone faced for being a dark-skinned black woman who embraced her natural appearance during a time when blacks had to pass the paper-bag test to be considered worthy of respect and admiration.