Colorism and Miss Nina: Thoughts on the New Nina Simone Biopic

Over the past few weeks, news of an upcoming release for the film Nina based on the life of legendary singer, songwriter, and pianist Nina Simone has been the center of controversy. The reasoning? Because the actress cast to play Nina, Zoe Saldana, is seen dawning a fake afro, a prosthetic nose, and poorly done makeup to darken her skin, all in an effort to make her look more like Nina. On top of Saldana’s laughable costume, the biopic itself falsely dramatizes aspects of Nina’s life and interpersonal relationships.

Now anyone who knows me knows how much I love Nina Simone. Over the past year, she has become nothing short of my spirit animal. Like many people, the only song that I was familiar with by Nina was “Feeling Good” but after Lauryn Hill performed her own rendition on the Jimmy Fallon show (as seen here) and announced a tribute album in Nina’s honor (as seen here), I began to look more into who Nina was and what she contributed to music. Nina was raised during a time where her parents could not even sit in the front row of her piano performances because churches were segregated and she wasn’t accepted into a premier music institution solely based on the color of the skin. She spent the majority of her life fighting to uplift the black community through her art and activism.  So much so that her songs like “Mississippi Goddamn” were banned from the radio for being too radical. So my question is why? Why did an entire casting crew decide to cast Zoe Saldana, a light-skinned Afro-Latina in the leading role? Why did an entire crew of writers see it fit to change Nina’s story without the consent of her family? Why did Saldana spend months learning and performing a role that she knew wouldn’t do Nina justice? Why is there so much disrespect?

Overall, the fact that this film was even able to be created and is now being promoted is absolutely distasteful. Further than that, my issue with Saldana being cast isn’t that she’s not “black enough.” In no way, will I support the idea that anyone can invalidate Saldana’s choice to identify as an Afro-Latina because it’s her lived experience and I can’t deny her blackness. However, the choice to cast Saldana over a plethora of talented dark skinned actresses is both an erasure of an important part of Nina’s experience as a black woman and a perpetuation of colorism.

The idea that dark-skinned women are not as beautiful as lighter skinned women is an idea that started during slavery and continues to be perpetuated throughout our society.  So the fact that someone who vehemently stood behind her appearance and her identity as a dark-skinned woman couldn’t even be portrayed by someone who feasibly looks like her is disheartening and shameful. Overall, a lot of the backlash has fallen on Zoe Saldana but I think those who managed the production are responsible as well. If you don’t know much about Nina Simone’s story, I suggest you watch the documentary “What Happened, Miss Nina?” but trust me when I say that a person as remarkable as Nina deserves so much better.