Actress, Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of late soul singer, Nina Simone in a biopic has caused controversy among many moviegoers. The controversy surrounding Zoe Saldana’s portrayal isn’t necessarily a sign that her career is slowing down anytime soon. However the issue surrounding Zoe Saldana’s portrayal has sparked a discussion on the erasure of Black women’s image in the media. Hence the controversy surrounding Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone is about the blatant erasure of Black women’s image in the media and lack of respect for Nina Simone’s legacy.
One of the most common criticism regarding Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone is due to the fact that Zoe Saldana’s heritage isn’t the same as Nina Simone’s. Nina Simone was an African American woman from the South. Zoe Saldana is half Puerto Rican and half Dominican. The difference of heritage and cultures between the two women make critics wonder how can Zoe Saldana relate to Nina Simone’s role in shaping American culture. Having a woman who isn’t particularly familiar with African American culture much less identifies with it upset many of her fans and movie critics alike.
Along with Zoe Saldana’s heritage, her cafe au lait complexion and narrow features is a sharp contrast to Nina Simone’s dark brown skin and broad features. Zoe Saldana’s features and complexion are more widely accepted and seen as beautiful among women of African descent than Nina Simone’s. Zoe Saldana’s features and complexion are more acceptable among women of African descent is due to the fact that she looks closer to the European aesthetic of beauty.Nina Simone’s dark brown skin and broad features played a tremendous role in the way she was viewed and treated in 1960s America. To have a woman like Zoe Saldana is erasing Nina Simone’s essence and struggles in society. People were disgusted that Zoe Saldana agreed to don blackface and wear an prosesthic nose to look more like Nina Simone to portray her in the biopic. Many critics were upset that a woman whose features were more acceptable by mainstream media was chosen to portray Nina Simone when Nina Simone didn’t have such leverage or accolades in the media due to being dark skin with natural hair and broad features.
What does this have to do with the erasure of Black women in the media?
Black women have always been portrayed in a one sided and often times inaccurate light in the media. If a Black woman isn’t portraying a stereotypical Mammy, Jezebel or Sapphire, her portrayal is represented by a woman who doesn’t necessarily resemble or reflect her appearance or culture. Black women are usually portrayed by biracial actresses such as Zendaya Coleman, Zoe Kravitiz, Amandla Stenberg etc while Black men are accurately portrayed by Black male actors who fit their phenotype and features. It isn’t to say that biracial actresses shouldn’t be given acting roles but biracial actresses portraying Black women in movies and TV shows erases the image of Black women. Having biracial actresses portray Black women in the media also takes away opportunities that Black actresses may have to portray a Black woman in the media. Most of all, having a biracial actress portray Black women in the media enforces the belief that Black women aren’t beautiful or noticeable unless they are mixed with another race.
Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone erases Nina Simone’s accomplishments and existence. Nina Simone was staunchly pro Black, celebrated her Blackness and her stance showed through her music. Zoe Saldana is the complete opposite of Nina Simone. It would have been more suitable to have a dark skin African American actress to portray Nina Simone instead. A dark skin African American actress would have been able to deeply connect with the role and accurately represent Nina Simone. Having a woman who fits society’s beauty ideal and isn’t familiar with African American culture is a complete insult to Nina Simone’s legacy and what she stood for.
Ultimately, this issue is bigger than Zoe Saldana and the production, itself. The issue of erasure of Black women in the media and lack of representation is what allowed Zoe Saldana to portray Nina Simone. Hence the backlash against Zoe Saldana portraying Nina Simone in the biopic isn’t necessarily based on dislike of Zoe Saldana, but based on wanting to preserve Nina Simone’s legacy. And accurately portray and represent Black women in the media.