What Kind of Representation?: Part II



Over the past few years, the way in which I use Facebook has changed drastically. I no longer use it as a way to keep in touch with friends, post pictures, or anything like that. Instead, it’s part of the way I get my news. I follow several news and cultural websites and spend quite a bit of time digesting the articles every day. This week, my Facebook newsfeed was covered in articles about the new music biopic Nina. The film is supposed to tell the story of Nina Simone, the famed jazz musician and civil rights activist featured in the picture to the left below. All the articles I read expressed intense dissatisfaction with the actress chosen to portray Simone — Zoe Saldana, featured in the picture to the right below.

I heard this issue a while ago, but the trailer just came out this week. Previously, I wasn’t sure how the film was going to handle the obvious difference in their skin tones. Were they just going to have Saldana play Simone as a light-skinned woman and completely erase a big part of who she was, of what she fought for? Or were they going to darken Saldana’s skin? (I don’t even know which one is worse). Well, the trailer answered the question for me: they darkened her skin. And it looks absolutely ridiculous. It’s so distracting and makes me so angry. I can’t even.

Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising. There are so many issues with racism and colorism in Hollywood. And it goes way beyond #OscarsSoWhite. Hollywood is obsessed with whiteness and lightness, and it has been for a long time. Think about Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Laurence Oliver as Othello, Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story, John Wayne as Ghenghis Khan, Johnny Depp as Tonto, and the list goes on and on. It’s not just Hollywood either; indeed, the same effect is seen in India’s Bollywood.

All of this takes me back to the question I posed in my blog post last week: what kind of representation is acceptable? I think it is fantastic that someone wanted to tell Simone’s story. She was a remarkable, talented, and powerful woman; she deserves to be recognized and remembered in this way. But it is offensive to her name to cast someone who does not resemble her at all (and her family agrees); choosing Saldana takes away an important part of Simone’s life experience — of who she was. While it’s not as bad as blackface, it still reeks of the same thing. It’s Hollywood’s way of pretending it’s not racist because, you know, they’re still casting a Black woman in the role. But it’s like a backhanded compliment because it still feels like they don’t think darker-skinned women are good enough. This is not acceptable representation.

I think darker-skinned women are best suited to play dark-skinned women. And there are so many talented dark-skinned actresses who could have portrayed Simone. One of the things I kept hearing in the #OscarsSoWhite discussion was that many artists of color were frustrated because they felt that there were not many roles written for them. This could have been one. It is so sad and frustrating when POC continue to be overlooked and cannot even play historical figures that look like them. This is not acceptable representation.

Finally, I’m really disappointed in Zoe Saldana. I’ve seen some of her movies, and she is definitely talented. But she should have known better. I think back to my first post this semester when I talked about how light-skinned individuals need to check their privilege and make sure they leave space for their darker-skinned counterparts. Zoe has not done that at all. In fact, her response to the controversy is horrifying:

“I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either. An artist is colorless, genderless … It’s more complex than just, ‘Oh, you chose the Halle Berry look-alike to play a dark, strikingly beautiful, iconic black woman.’ The truth is, they chose an artist who was willing to sacrifice herself. We needed to tell her story because she deserves it.” –Zoe Saldana

Just because something was done in the past doesn’t mean it should continue to be perpetuated when it’s wrong. The status quo isn’t great, and if we continue to believe that artists are colorless and genderless, we will continue to allow only a few types of artist to have all the roles, excluding other amazing talent. This is not acceptable representation. The truth is, they chose an artist who would sell because … racism. It has nothing to do with sacrifice. It has everything to do with power and privilege.

P.S. If  you want to learn about Nina Simone, check out the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone on Netflix. In the process of writing this blog post, I finally started it (it had been in my queue for a while) and it’s great! It uses real footage of Simone herself and includes interviews with her family.