Tolerating Zoe Saldana as Simone?

With a knowing smile I say, “alas, colorism is definitely here to stay.” 

.Loving Nina Simone.
Pierce Brosnan, Renee Russo and Dennis Leary unceremoniously introduced me to Nina Simone. I was watching The Thomas Crown Affair shortly after it came out and I recognized Sting‘s voice, but there was this other voice that stayed with me. It lingered all through the movie, it was haunting and I loved it.

The movie was released in 1999 and I was a recent college graduate pursuing my master’s, but needing a break I visited my family then living in The Gambia for a reprieve. One day during my short stay I was humming the only line I remembered from the movie, “Oh, sinnerman where are you going to run to?” My preteen younger sister who was lounging with me shrieked in that excitable voice of hers, “You listen to NINA SIMONE too?” She ran out of the living room, leaving me with a perplexed look on my face. She reappeared with her laptop and started playing an album of Simone’s — I don’t remember which — and she couldn’t stop raving about her. Not too many people I knew had a clue who Simone was, yet my sister who was barely 13, was schooling me on this powerful vocalist (thanks to Lil’ sis I also appreciate Jimi Hendrix, and a good guitar); I was amazed.

.A question of trying to tolerate Zoe Saldana as Simone.
Once I researched Simone on my own, I was proud that she looked like me. Not just that she was a Black woman, but that she was a dark-skinned Black woman and commanded so much power with her voice. I am one of those who has always loved the richness of my skin tone, and as much as I have negated the chatter of colorism amongst Black women, I have also lived its reality.

Then came pictures of light-skinned, straight-haired, uber-skinny Zoe Saldana portraying Nina Simone in the unauthorized biopic currently titled Nina. She looks like everything that Nina Simone was not, was all I could think. My disdain however is not directed at Saldana, but I am disappointed. I understand and respect the desire for Saldana to further stretch her acting versatility, but is it not insulting that her skin tone has to be darkened for authenticity? Her hair altered, her body type slightly dis-morphed? Were there no authentic image ready actresses or songstresses to fill this role? India.Arie? Viola Davis? Rutina Wesley? — were none of them available?

Akiba Solomon says it best:
“Looking at recent images of actress Zoe Saldana blackened up and wearing a prosthetic nose and a bootleg headwrap to portray Simone in the upcoming, unauthorized biopic Nina, I’ve been thinking about the importance of the singer’s physicality. At a time when “black is beautiful” was a revolutionary concept rather than a marketing campaign, Simone adorned herself with African garb and intricate plaited updos. Sometimes she posed nude. As a songwriter and performer, she created a space for black women to grapple with ideas of beauty, privilege and sexual desirability.

“Given the rich, sharply political source material of Simone’s songs, performances and writings, I think it’s appropriate for journalists, bloggers, academics and commenters to question the casting of Saldana, an extremely thin, light brown skinned woman with relatively narrow facial features, to play Nina Simone.” – read Solomon’s full Colorlines‘ piece.

Will Saldana do a good job portraying Simone? – probably. Will I appreciate her portrayal and allow myself to look past Saldana as a choice that by its very nature further perpetuates colorism as a treatment of Black women? – probably not; in fact it won’t.

image: Nina Simone (right) and Zoe Saldana (left) as featured on