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The outrage over Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone, explained

This week saw the release of the trailer for Nina, a controversial Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana.

It's a gross understatement to say it was not well-received.

The movie promises to honor the legacy of one of the most iconic and indomitable women in American music, but seems to be doing the opposite. The casting of Saldana to play the darker-skinned Simone has sparked an ongoing controversy. But the anger and frustration surrounding Nina and its trailer are part of a bigger cultural discussion about race, how it affected Simone's career, and how the conversations she started are still happening today.

In response to the trailer's release, Vox culture writer Alex Abad-Santos spoke with Vox identities fellow Victoria Massie and identities intern Candice Norwood about Simone's legacy and the outrage the film has inspired.

Why was Zoe Saldana’s casting met with such outrage?

Victoria: Even though the release date was announced this week, people have been outraged about Zoe Saldana's casting as Nina Simone for years. There were obvious issues about Saldana's casting and skin color when some of the first images surfaced in 2012. A lot of the controversy is rooted in the fact that Saldana is a light-skinned actress of color (of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent) who is essentially donning blackface.

Candice: I think there are two important points when looking at this. The first being that it's just ridiculous to spend money and effort making a light-skinned actress darker for the role when there are so many dark-skinned actresses who are equally, if not more, qualified to play Simone. Given our history of showing preference for people with light skin over those with darker skin, it is easy to see how the casting decision would quickly erupt. Secondly, considering how much Simone loved and promoted her dark skin, it is wrong and disrespectful to her legacy to cast a light-skinned actress to play her.

Alex: The thing to keep in mind here is that it wasn't just the general public that was mad about this movie. There was also pushback from Simone's daughter, Simone Kelly, who felt as though the film was side-stepping the singer's family and their wishes.

How connected/entrenched is Nina Simone’s legacy to the idea of colorism?

Victoria: You cannot understand Nina Simone's life and legacy without taking stock of her identity as a dark-skinned black woman. That fact was inextricably linked to her life's trajectory, her art, and her politics — to everything that made Nina fearlessly and unapologetically Nina.

Simone Kelly, her daughter, explained this — how her mother's dark skin affected how she was treated — to the Los Angeles Times:

We all have a story. My mother suffered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and people told her her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide. It's very important the world acknowledges my mother was a classical musician whose dreams were not realized because of racism.

Candice: The concept of "colorism" can get a little complicated, and the Vox Identities team plans to explore it more in the coming weeks. But the basic idea is that racism involves prejudice or discrimination based on a person's racial background, and colorism is based on differences in skin tone. Colorism can certainly happen between people of different races, but it can also occur among people of the same race.

Among black people there's a long history of viewing light-skinned blacks as more attractive or accomplished. This has affected the educational, economic, and professional opportunities available to dark-skinned blacks. Simone wholeheartedly celebrated her dark skin in her work, so it's important that this is reflected in the casting decisions for her biopic.

By the way, it's worth noting that colorism isn't just an issue for blacks or for the US; it's a global problem. In fact, "skin-whitening" is a multibillion-dollar industry, and it happens in many countries, including India, China, and the Philippines.

Alex: Viola Davis made this point when talking about the character she plays on How to Get Away with Murder. In the wake of a messy New York Times television piece that accused Shonda Rhimes of being an angry black woman, Davis appeared on The View and talked about race, Hollywood, and opportunity. She said:

That’s what makes her [Davis's character Annalise Keating] iconic. I think that beauty is subjective. I’ve heard that statement [that Davis is "less classically beautiful"] my entire life. Being a dark-skinned black woman, you heard it from the womb. And "classically not beautiful" is a fancy term for saying ugly. And denouncing you. And erasing you.

Who's making this movie?

Alex: A lot of the creative forces behind this movie are white people. This isn't to say that white men and women can't tell beautiful, honest, stories about people of color. But blind spots exist. And Saldana's distracting appearance in the movie might be indicative of a larger problem in Hollywood.

Candice: The director-writer is a white woman and a majority of the executive producers are white men. That clearly highlights some of the issues surrounding the diversity in Hollywood debate. But to be honest, colorism is still a huge issue within racial communities, so I would be even more annoyed and sad if this had happened with an all-black cast and crew.

Victoria: But that's the thing, I genuinely don't believe this would have happened if the entire cast and crew were black. It takes a lot of people — from writers and producers to directors and actors to make-up artists and production companies — to pull off a project like this. It's hard for me to imagine that if there were more black people involved, they would have been so clueless to the colorism problem Saldana's casting presented, especially for a story about Simone, who was adamant about affirming her blackness.

Candice: It's important and necessary to have more people of color (like, way more) behind the scenes on projects like this. It's probably unfair for me to project decisions made by Saldana and David Oyelowo (a producer and the film's second lead) on all black actors and producers. I believe as a whole they are more insightful than that.

Let's talk about this tweet, sent directly to Saldana from Simone's estate:

Alex: I can't even imagine what it would be like to see that tweet in my mentions. It would literally be like the Kool-Aid Man, and all my other mentions would be the wall he busts through.

Candice: It think this tweet is funny, but a little sad. I'm sure everyone involved with Nina had good intentions, but I totally support the people who are calling out Saldana for taking the role. I've had a complicated relationship with Saldana's views on race for a while now. In an interview with BET, Saldana said "there's no such thing as people of color."

Yes, in an ideal world we should all be equal human beings; our skin color, religious beliefs, and gender identity should not affect us. Unfortunately that's just not the world we live in, and to me, Saldana refuses to recognize that.

Victoria: To be honest, I think that tweet is the only thing even remotely related to this biopic that resembles the actual Nina Simone. As William C. Anderson wrote in Pitchfork, Nina was a black woman "in charge of herself." And I find it so difficult to think that Nina would've condoned the kind of lightened erasure Saldana's casting represents.

Is it fair to blame the actors in this?

Alex: One of the things I have trouble reconciling is how much blame we assign to the two leads in this movie: Saldana and Oyelowo. As bad as Saldana's makeup is, I don't think anyone made this movie out of spite. And the problem I keep running into is the problem of how much of Nina is an industry problem and how much of it is the artists' fault. The reality is, sometimes movies don't get made — funding, marketing, studio support, etc. — if there are no big-name stars attached to a project.

Candice: I understand that the actors had good intentions. They wanted to recognize and pay homage to an amazing figure in black and American history. But by choosing to participate in the casting of a light-skinned actress to play Simone, they are doing the exact opposite. Oyelowo and Saldana are two very prominent people of color in Hollywood, so I'm definitely disappointed they didn't see an issue with this or speak out. Saldana was in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avatar, two incredibly successful movies. She has an important platform, and I believe she should have declined the role and talked about why it was necessary for her to do so.

Victoria: Absolutely. I'm constantly reminded of Viola Davis's speech at the Emmy's last year: "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity." And those opportunities are made by everyone using their privilege to make space for those who don't have it.

White people need to make space for people of color. But it also means people of color need to make space for each other too. Just like it wasn't okay for Chris Rock to make fun of Asians at the Oscars when they're even less represented in acting fields than black people, it's not okay that a light-skinned, mainstream black actress like Saldana — who previously admitted in an interview with InStyle she wasn't right for the part — didn't turn down the role of Simone.

Why didn't she and Oyelowo advocate for a better, more qualified, darker-skinned black actress who looked and sounded like Simone?

With Nina, we have a story about a black icon being told through the eyes of folks who don't seem to demonstrate full cultural competency in black culture. So far, it's playing out in really problematic (skin)colorblind casting. And for those who should have known better — like Saldana and Oyelowo — there's little evidence they did anything to stop it.

If you had to choose between a Nina Simone biopic or nothing, what would you have picked?

Alex: If we learned anything from this year's Oscars, it's that there isn't enough opportunity in Hollywood for actors and actresses of color. With Nina, we're now faced with a story about an iconic black woman — an opportunity for actors and actresses of color — that, from the trailer, seems to be not great.

Candice: I love Nina Simone. I think she is beyond deserving of a biopic. But if we're not going to do the movie properly then let's just not do it. You can go watch the awesome documentary about her on Netflix instead.

Victoria: If the only option I have is choosing between a Nina Simone biopic that has a black actress in blackface to play Simone and no biopic at all, I'll take no biopic. Representation in film is important. But people of color deserve more than this. Simone deserves more than this.