Last week, the White House’s Hispanic Heritage Awards announced that actress Zoe Saldaña would be among its honorees. Saldaña, a Puerto Rican-Dominican-American actress, has become the most high profile Afro-Latina in Hollywood history, and it’s about time. However, in an industry that lacks roles for actors of color and is driven by name recognition, Saldaña’s status as racially black and ethnically Latina does present some challenges.
There’s a moment in the 2002 film Drumline where Saldaña tells co-star Nick Cannon, that she’s a “Southern girl,” and I just don’t buy it. Saldaña was otherwise convincing in the film. However, there’s something so subtly Afro-Latina and Caribbean in the cadence of her speech, the carriage of her body, and the expressions on her face, that I just didn't believe her as African American, particularly not Southern.
I am of Afro-Latina, Afro-Caribbean, and African American heritage. I grew up in the US, but I’ve spent time in the Dominican Republic and throughout the Caribbean. I always notice cultural differences in the African diaspora.
That cultural incongruity is one of my biggest concerns about her casting as Nina Simone in the upcoming biopic Nina. The other concern is obvious—she looks nothing like the singer. Simone herself said, “I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise.” Saldaña is the kind of woman of color who looks more like the standards of beauty that white people have been taught to accept. As Claudia Roth Pierpont asked in the New Yorker recently, “Is it possible to separate Simone’s physical characteristics, and what they cost her in this country, from the woman she became? Can she be played by an actress with less distinctively African features, or a lighter skin tone? Should she be played by such an actress?” Pierpont pointed out that the film’s white director, Cynthia Mort, has been “stalwart in her defense of Saldaña’s rightness for the role.”
Nina Simone in 1965 and Zoe Saldaña at the Academy Awards in 2010. Photos via Creative Commons.
Beyond color and background, I question whether or not Saldaña can connect with the African American civil rights history that is such a critical part of Simone’s story. The Dominican Republic has its own brutal history of racism, but with a very different cultural history. Just as non-US blacks have often bemoaned the insulting and fake accents of African Americans playing Caribbean and African characters, Saldaña seems poised to miss some of the crucial nuances of Simone’s context.
The problem is that the same entertainment industry that rejected and ignored Simone—with its racism, sexism, and colorism—is now charged with making a film about her life. There are currently no dark skinned actresses in Hollywood who have Saldaña’s equivalent name recognition, which is necessary to to pull off the business side of getting this film made. If we had a time machine, I would love go back and see Whoopi Goldberg in the part, a casting choice of which Simone actually approved back in the 1980s.
Ironically, over a decade ago, Goldberg acquired the rights to make a biopic of Cuban musician Celia Cruz, and had Cruz’s approval. However, when the deal announced publicly after Cruz’s death, the Latino community expressed outrage: “Whoopi doesn't sing and she's not Latina,” New York Latinomix radio host Celiines Torbino told the New York Post. “For you to portray… Cruz, you have to have a Latina flavor.” Will the same hold true for Saldaña? Should the actress who plays Simone have an African American flavor?
Film is a visual medium. The photos that have been released of Saldaña as Simone look questionable. According to the New Yorker article, in the film, Saldaña is decked out with “an artificially broadened nose, an Afro wig, and—inevitably, but most unfortunately—dark makeup that is all too easily confoundable with blackface.” The images of Saldaña in African style headwraps also look incongruous. In part, this is because, up until now, Saldaña’s image has been fully assimilated into European beauty standards. We’ve even seen Jennifer Lopez rock a headwrap that would make her Afro-Latino ancestors proud. But for Saldaña, perhaps as a more African-looking Afro-Latina, there’s pressure to avoid playing with African styles or a deeper internalized racism. Her public image is built on her willowy femininity, including flatironed hair. This is the first time we see her even aspire to African female iconography, and it looks awkward.
Dressing up for the role of Nina Simone looks a bit uncomfortable. Photos via Madame Noire.
Not every biopic can have the great fortune to be greenlighted at the moment when an A-list actor of the right age and look is available. Ray was extremely fortunate to cast Jamie Foxx, who not only looked startlingly like Ray Charles but also could sing. Spike Lee was lucky to get the handsome and earnest Denzel for X. Milk was fortunate to have the perfect actor in Sean Penn. Even the upcoming Jimi Hendrix biopic had many choices before they settled on Andre 3000. But the reality is that Hollywood has exponentially more options for men who could carry a film to box office success. Even the choices for white women are significantly better. For black women, they are dismal.
Apparently Mary J. Blige was the original choice in casting the Nina Simone film, but she dropped out. Critics have suggested that Jennifer Hudson, Erykah Badu, Viola Davis, and Heather Headley would have been better choices than Saldaña. Who else did they have to choose from? For A-list black actresses under 50, I count Beyonce, Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith Meagan Good, and Kerry Washington. Am I missing anyone? I would have liked to see the slightly lesser known Gabrielle Union, Anika Noni Rose, and Sanaa Latham read for the role. Lupita Nyongo would have been an interesting contender, although she may be a bit young. Meanwhile Angela Bassett and Vivica Fox would have been interesting contenders a decade ago. Still, this is a paltry handful of options compared to A-list white actresses or black male actors.
I recall the uproar in the ‘90s when Madonna and then Laura San Giacomo were slated to star in a biopic of Frida Kahlo. Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange had even expressed interest early on. The Latino community was furious about the idea of Kahlo being played by a white actress. Fortunately for all of us, none of those films went into production, and Salma Hayek’s Oscar-winning version, directed by Julie Taymor, did the artist’s life justice in 2002. Not only did Hayek look like Frida, she also had the cultural and national background to understand all the nuances of the story.
I don’t blame Saldaña for taking the role. After all the action blockbusters and rainbow of extraterrestrial characters she’s played, it must be an exciting craft challenge to play a woman with such depth, pathos, and significance. Saldaña is unlikely to have many opportunities to play an Afro Latina historical character, because Afro Latina women’s lives are not often deemed to be of sufficient significance. The Celia Cruz movie, for example, never wound up getting made—not because Latinos objected to Goldberg as the lead, but because, as the Spanish-language press reported, Cruz’s “life was too normal for Hollywood.”
I understand Saldaña’s motivation to play Simone and I wish her the best of luck—she needs to get the role right, because a film on Simone won’t be made again. Even if it’s a flop, it will have “been done.” This isn’t true of all stars. Interest in major white stars such as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis never seems to die. Monroe inspired the recent musical TV show Smash, and Elvis was recently credited by Variety with inventing rock and roll (Variety did have to apologize for this racist reduction after coming under extreme fire on Black Twitter and beyond). But this Nina Simone film will likely be the only Nina Simone film, so now that the lead is cast, I’m pulling for Saldaña to do the role justice.
However, things are not looking good for the film, beyond the controversy over Saldaña’s casting. In May, Nina director Mort filed suit against the production company—she had worked for nearly a decade on the film and alleged that producers have undermined her vision in a breach of contract. The suit was dismissed, and the film will go forward, but when Nina debuted in May at Cannes its was at a screening confined to possible distributors. Critics have yet to see it.
Hopefully, Saldaña’s Hispanic Heritage award reflects not only on Saldaña’s accomplishment as an Afro Latina actress, but also a black woman, committed to illuminating the lives of women throughout the African diaspora. For the Nina Simone film, I can only hope that somehow, miraculously, Saldaña rises to the occasion and the production pulls it off. Otherwise, it will be such a sad moment, with US racism and the entertainment industry offering Nina Simone a fresh and scathing insult—no peace for her legacy, even in death.
Aya de Leon teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. She is currently completing a sex worker heist novel, as well as blogging and tweeting about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.wordpress.com.