By Guest Contributor, Bea Sullivan
Hollywood is making a biopic of Nina Simone. What could go wrong?
As angry as I was about the recent casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, I had to put it down. When I heard the news, I was stunned and confused, but that quickly became an internalized rage likened to the mechanics of an incinerator. Why, I wondered, had this upset me so deeply? What could be the reasoning behind such an erroneous decision? I was certain there were ulterior motives —like whitewashing. Fans of Nina, including her daughter, have denounced the project for the casting decision.
As I’ve reflected on the issue, I am more deeply disturbed by Hollywood’s hold on our individual and collective psyche being as intrinsic as air. Women like Nina Simone don’t come around very often; how could Hollywood be trusted to portray her adequately given that its business is in creating a fantasy for the masses?
And there you have it. The line between fantasy and reality. Zoe Saldana doesn’t resonate with me as a convincing enough actress to do Nina Simone any justice.
There are a number of Black Latinas in the world who many not be recognized by Hollywood as Black in the first place, or even who have the salt perform this kind of role. Is Hollywood giving them a chance? Or is it copping out to cast someone who not only conforms to more acceptable standards of beauty, but who has a recognizable name for the sake of ticket sales.
Even asking Mary J Blige to play Nina is tricky to me, while she identifies as a black woman. Her life and experience as an entertainer seem lacking. She has been reported as saying that upon accepting the role (before dropping it this summer to pursue another film and because of funding) that she had yet to fully research Nina’s life. Nina’s impact on the civil rights movement; the ways dark-skinned, southern black women were and are perceived in the media; Nina’s undeniable talent as a pianist and vocalist, which was turned away by institutions like Curtis; her renunciation of the United States’ political, economic and military investment in the Vietnam War and her expatriation to Europe; her battle with mental illness and how it affected her image with stakeholders in the entertainment industry in Europe and the Americas. Mary still had some reading to do.
The fact that Nina is being portrayed posthumously is an oversight by the entertainment industry in my view. Worse an oversight is Hollywood’s systemic undercurrent erasure of black women’s images and stories. In particular, the erasure of dark-skinned black women and their struggle implies that this particular experience is irrelevant. That if we band together as women or as people of color, then the problem of race will somehow solve itself.
This debate calls out the failure of people of color to converse about color in a thoughtful way that includes our differences and similarities while celebrating them. Hollywood’s glorification of light-skinned people and white people is important because we watch it, internalize it, and enact it ourselves via colorism. Nina’s legacy holds too much weight to bastardize her origins, her struggle, her embodiment of beauty through it all as a mahogany woman. The preservation of her legacy has everything to do with her experience in the body she inhabited as what she produced in the world.
While her music and accomplishments touched and moved me as it did many others, her life does not belong to me, it belonged to no one, which is what made her time on earth so special. Further, David Nathan, a close friend of Nina’s, has said, “The choices are completely beyond my comprehension. Having known Nina from my own teen years to close to her passing in 2003, I can say that aside from her obvious genius as an artist, she was a complex woman whose personality made her often misunderstood, erratic, volatile and subject to the gamut of emotions from rage to tenderness.”
I’m more concerned now with how we understand our reality through (sometimes problematic) representations of life and how that affects our behavior. Her impact was that of excavating a feeling unseen and unsaid.
I’m finding solace and peace in the essence of Nina’s individuality—that no one is or could be quite like her. And shouldn’t that in itself be inspiration? Alternative avenues for funding, casting, direction, screenwriting, for instance, could be a starting point; in short we have to take control of stories that matter to us, to step in and just make something real. Outrage over absence of reality portrayed through imagined reproductions is how great pieces get made. While my anger doesn’t necessarily move the argument further, it has incited inspiration to participate in making richer representations of reality that speak to the urgency of my dreams.