Nikita Richardson
March 03, 2016 3:20 pm
Getty Images/ Gilles Petard

The last year has seen a sharp uptick in interest around the life and career of the late jazz singer and civil rights activist, Nina Simone, who despite her own struggles with bipolar disorder and a marriage marred by domestic abuse managed to forever change the world of music not to mention society at large.

Tributes to Miss Simone, as she is affectionately known, have included samplings of her work in popular music (most recently on Kanye West’s song “Famous”) and a well-received Netflix documentary tracing Simone’s journey from the small town of Tryon, North Carolina to international superstardom. So, it was only a matter of time before the singer’s life got the biopic treatment and the long-gestating Nina, which is due to hit theaters on April 22, seemed like the answer. That is until fans learned that actress Zoe Saldana was cast as the titular character.

The problem has little to do with Zoe Saldana’s acting ability or the creation of a film about Simone at the nadir of her career, but rather the filmmakers’ decision to cast Saldana at all. Though the actress (sometimes) identifies as black, her mixed race heritage, which includes Haitian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Lebanese roots, means she has much lighter skin and more delicate features than Simone, who had an incredibly dark complexion, a wide nose, and proudly wore her hair in its natural state as she and her career matured. To make up for this discrepancy, director/screenwriter Cynthia Mort and her team noticeably darkened Saldana’s skin several shades and fitted her with a prosthetic nose and an afro wig. See the results for yourself in the Nina trailer, below:

To many fans of Simone, Saldana’s appearance in Nina is tantamount to blackface, with some feeling wholeheartedly that she more or less stole a highly coveted role among black actresses in an industry where great roles for people of color are few and far between.

Even the people in charge of Nina Simone’s estate agree that Saldana was not the right choice.

Saldana has remained mum on the issue as have the filmmakers, but the issue remains as do many difficult questions. Where do we draw the line on what it means to be black enough? And how can we ensure that the right people get the right roles for the right films, especially when those films concern the legacies of people of color? Miss Simone would likely say the key is to speak up and let the people in charge know exactly how you feel. And, boy, have the people spoken.

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