13 September 2012
Articles | News

News: Nina Simone

Controversy over casting of a 'light skinned' actress to portray soul legend

Words Max Goldbart

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THE New York Times has been exploring the controversy over the casting of a ‘light-skinned’ black actress in a forthcoming biopic of Nina Simone.

Last month’s announcement that Zoe Saldana would play the ‘high priestess of soul’ in Nina sparked debate in the media and prompted Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, to raise objections on her mother’s official Facebook page.

“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” said Kelly — who claims she is a fan of Saldana’s work — in an interview. “Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.”

Oddly, her mum’s own choice to play her had been Whoopi Goldberg. R&B songwriter Mary J Blige was initially reported to be taking the role, but later pulled out due to “scheduling issues”.

Saldana’s casting has provoked accusations of ‘colourism’ — Alice Walker’s term for discrimination based on gradations of skin colour — and Tiffani Jones, founder of a blog called Coffee Rhetoric, said in an interview: “When is it going to be OK to not be the delicate-looking ideal of what the media considers blackness to be?”

Jones also wrote a blog post linking to an online petition at the website Change.org calling for the film’s writer/director Cynthia Mort and executive producer Jimmy Iovine to “replace Zoe Saldana with an actress who actually looks like Nina Simone.” The petition has 2,300 supporters at the time of writing (Thursday September 13).

Part of the controversy stems from Simone’s campaigning role in the civil rights movement and in highlighting racism through songs like ‘Four Women’ and ‘Mississipi Goddam’.

Yaba Blay, a scholar of African and diaspora studies, said: “The power of her aesthetics was part of her power. This was a woman who prevailed and triumphed despite her aesthetic.” He added that dark-skinned actresses were “already erased from the media, especially in the role of the ‘it girl’ or the love interest.”

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[Via NY Times]

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