When we talk about the upcoming Nina Simone biopic, it feels that two different conversations are taking place: One amongst those who understand how an undercurrent of anti-black racism allowed this to happen, and those who do not.
In a victory for the truth, Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly unpacks the heart of the issue in “Nina Simone’s Face.”
Doing what he does so incredibly well, Coates expresses what I’m sure many black people are feeling about the film. It is not simply that Zoe Saldana darkened her skin and wore a prosthetic nose, but what that casting means about the consequence of having those features as a black woman—and the consequence it held for Nina Simone in particular.
Coates writes about growing up with his friends in Baltimore and being aware of their “physical defect[s].” We know what he means. One of the most harmful products of anti-black racism is the notion that our proximity to whiteness increases our beauty and desirability, not just to white people, but also to each other.
By simply existing, Nina Simone confronted this lie.
That voice, inevitably, calls us to look at Nina Simone’s face, and for a brief moment, understand that the hate we felt, that the mockery we dispensed, was unnatural, was the fruit of conjurations and the shadow of plunder. We look at Nina Simone’s face and the lie is exposed and we are shamed. We look at Nina Simone’s face and a terrible truth comes into view—there was nothing wrong with her. But there is something deeply wrong with us.
With Nina, Coates again uncovers a truth about racism which he time and again articulates so masterfully: Racism doesn’t have to be flagrant or even intentional to be real and harmful. “We are not so much talking about deliberate mockery as something much more insidious,” he writes.
The film, in many ways, erases Nina Simone from her own story. And in casting Zoe Saldana to portray her, Coates argues that we repeat the exact brand of racism Simone faced her entire life.
Perhaps the most frustrating conversations around the film are those which try to defend Zoe Saldana’s casting simply because she is a black woman and a good actress. Those who push this argument are doubtlessly missing an element of this debate that is so clearly seen and felt by black women and so invisible to so many others.
While Zoe Saldana is and looks black, the fact is, she is black in a way that so many other black women are not. She’s black in a way that affirms white beauty standards. You cannot look at Zoe Saldana and Nina Simone side by side and not see this.
It’s equally difficult to ignore the fact that, while it is hard for all women in Hollywood, it is particularly hard for black women, and even harder for black women who share the dark skin, broad nose and full lips of Nina Simone. This fact is not separable from this country’s racist history, nor is the notion of “darkening up” a lighter skinned black person.
I received an email following my story about the team behind Nina from the film’s casting director who defended both her role and the film itself.
I do not believe and never said that the nearly all-white team behind film are out-and-out racists who sought to disrespect Nina Simone’s legacy. But, as Coates notes, “racism is a default setting,” and unless we are doing the difficult, inconvenient work to undercut racism, it will continue whether we consciously mean to or not.
The producers of Nina are the heirs of this history—not personal racists, but cogs. Jezebel’s Kara Brown researched the team behind Nina. It is almost entirely white. Doubtless, these are good, non-racist people—but not good enough. No one on the team seems to understand the absurdity at hand—making a movie about Nina Simone while operating within the very same machinery that caused Simone so much agony in the first place. I do not mean to be personally harsh here. I am not trying to hurt people. But there is something deeply shameful—and hurtful—in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic. In this sense, the creation of Nina is not a neutral act. It is part of the problem.
There are those who say we should be happy that a movie about Nina Simone is being made at all. Indeed, biopics about black women—or any women of color for that matter—are rare.
However, again: By casting a much lighter-skinned black woman without the very black features that characterized Nina Simone—not just in her appearance, but in how she was received by the world—you undercut a vital component that makes her story so important in the first place.
The question, then, is whether we should tell these stories at all if we aren’t able to do so in a way that honors the subjects.
But the very fact that there’s such a shallow pool of actors who look like Simone is not a non-racist excuse, but a sign of racism itself—the same racism that plagued Nina Simone. Being conscious of that racism means facing the possibility of Simone’s story never being told. That is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that we live in a world that is not ready for that story to be told. The release of Nina does not challenge this fact. It reifies it.
Images via Getty.