Everything Wrong With Zoe Saldana Casted as Nina Simone

Nina, the biopic of singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone was released last week, and talk about it appears to have died down. However, I feel compelled to write this (perhaps long overdue) article because I am still having conversations with people who can’t see the problem with casting Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone: "But… Zoe Saldana is black?" While this isn’t an example of the white-washing that Hollywood is so guilty of, there are still very serious and very real problems in play with the casting choice. This isn’t an issue of race, it’s an issue of colourism.

Colourism is a hierarchical social structure in which members of a racial category are judged on the lightness or darkness of their skin tone. "Studies have shown that people with lighter skin receive preference in the hiring process, earn more money and serve less jail time than those with dark complexions" and in Hollywood this preference translates into more roles and castings for lighter-skinned black women. Colourism is just as damaging and just as disgusting as racism, but perhaps more insidious, as is evident in Nina. Just because this time they have not whitewashed a PoC character (super congratulations to them, right?! It truly is an incredible feat to have cast a black actress AS a black woman), this does not mean they are not engaging in discriminatory and damaging actions. 

(Photo credit: Daily Mail)

When the casting decision was initially released, it was immediately met with backlash that Saldana was too light-skinned to play the part of Simone, a dark-skinned black woman. Eventually the flames died down and the issue was near forgotten, until the release of the trailer which re-ignited the fire with full force. The trailer saw Saldana with a prosthetic nose and extremely darkened skin, which Simone's brother Sam Waymon commented is "what we consider blackface." Much of the conversation on the controversy included a quote made by Simone’s daughter, Lisa Kelly:

"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 realised because of racism."

What is evident in Kelly’s recalled memories is that a huge part of Simone’s identity is not just being a black woman, but being a dark skinned black woman. Casting Saldana, who is light-skinned, as Simone reinforces the false perception that black women and actresses cannot be desirable without having "some kind of Eurocentric adjacent qualifier like lightened skin, or looser curly hair."

(Photo credit: Art Creation Forever)

Academy Award nominee Viola Davis addressed colourism in an interview stating that "the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking… That’s the whole racial aspect of colourism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire." To cast Saldana as Simone is to deny the additional prejudice that Simone received as a dark-skinned black woman, and to ignore light-skinned privilege, which is exactly what is in action with this casting decision. Light-skinned privilege is rooted in racism, because it gives preference, respect and opportunity to those with lighter skin because they more closely resemble the dominant white race. Nina was a hugely missed opportunity to counter colourism in Hollywood by casting a darker-skinned black woman musician/actress who would do justice to the life of the legendary Nina Simone.