Written by Yosra Osman

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What happened to Miss Simone’s face?

The casting of Zoe Saldana as the African American singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone continues to cause outrage. Our film expert, and Simone fan, Yosra Osman asks what the furore can teach us about race.

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the new biopic Nina.

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the new biopic Nina.

A couple of weeks ago, the trailer for the already controversial Nina Simone biopic, Nina, starring Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo, was released. And the reaction wasn’t exactly euphoric.

Here’s a few comments left on YouTube:

“A slap in the face of Nina’s legacy.”

“WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?”

“Is this a parody?”

“Boycott this movie.”

Now, I know YouTube comments aren’t always the best examples of fine judgement, but the film, and in particular its casting of Saldana, has caused widespread outrage since it was first announced in 2012. And YouTube’s just the beginning.

Saldana’s appearance in the poster and trailer – in which her skin has been darkened and she has been given a prosthetic nose – has exacerbated the anger to new, furious heights. Simone’s family have voiced their disappointment, Twitter has been ablaze with criticism and many fans haven’t been afraid to comment on the ‘poor’ casting choice.

Why has this caused so much controversy? Actors use makeup and prosthetics all the time. But this isn’t Nicole Kidman and her fake nose in The Hours and the reaction isn’t just a storm in a teacup.

“Bearing in mind that Simone so strongly tied her physical appearance into her activism, her music, her very life, it’s no surprise Saldana’s casting has raised a few eyebrows.”

Hollywood is already struggling against increasing scrutiny of its attitudes to diversity, including accusations of ‘whitewashing’ characters who are historically non-white (which, frankly, shouldn’t still be a thing). But this isn’t whitewashing: Saldana is black.

So, aside from the fact that the makeup frankly looks terrible, what really is the deal here?

First, let’s talk about Nina Simone, of whom I am a huge fan. The To Be Young, Gifted and Black artist was a fantastic singer, songwriter and pianist, as well as a civil rights activist. She was fiercely proud of her race, not only in being an African American, but specifically proud of her dark skin and African features.

Simone was often told her skin was too black, her nose was too large, and she faced this kind of harsh criticism from black people, as well as whites. Her response, particularly towards the end of the racially fraught 60s, was to display her ‘blackness’ as a force to be reckoned with. She adopted African fashion and hairstyles and her songs proudly reflected the fact that she was powerfully, unapologetically black (if you get a chance, listen to the likes of Mississippi Goddamn and Four Women).

Bearing in mind that Simone so strongly tied her physical appearance into her activism, her music, her very life, it’s no surprise Saldana’s casting has raised a few eyebrows. Saldana’s lighter skin and more European physical features are in some contrast to Simone’s appearance, which was in part the essence of who she was.

In this sense, the casting choice does seem bizarre. Of course, Saldana could be brilliant and embody Simone perfectly, but then why the awful makeup? Surely the film-makers would be smart enough to realise that in trying to avoid skin colour as an issue they’ve effectively made everything more problematic. It’s like taking the elephant in the room and awkwardly feeding it a growth hormone.

“Nina Simone is a character that an under-represented actress with dark skin could actually play, but they still aren’t chosen for the part. Why is this?”

A lot of fans’ disappointment in Saldana’s casting relates to Hollywood’s rather screwed-up attitude to diversity. Rather than issues of race, the Nina controversy raises a debate on colourism. It may or may not be surprising that, when it comes to black or Asian actresses (note: actresses, not actors), lighter-skinned actresses get more of the work in mainstream cinema. They still don’t get enough work, but it’s more than their dark-skinned counterparts.

It’s sad, but it’s true, and it is a big deal, particularly when relating to the gloomy notion that we are still living by in the world of cinema: the lighter and more European you look, the more attractive and more marketable you are considered. It’s why fantastic actresses like Viola Davis have turned towards television for larger, more complex roles. Nina Simone is a character that an under-represented actress with dark skin could actually play, but they still aren’t chosen for the part. Why is this?

In no way am I trying to undermine Saldana’s talents here, and at times the backlash has been extremely unfair, especially considering the personal vilification of Saldana. Comments about her ‘not being black enough’ are often misjudged, moving from the issue of skin colour to racial identity.

Many comments come from those who even question her heritage (mixed Puerto Rican and Dominican) in light of her identification as a black woman. This takes the debate to borderline offensive levels: none of us have the right to question how she identifies herself.

A term used a bit too frequently is ‘blackface’, which has been thrown around when referencing the film’s unfortunate use of makeup. The term blackface more accurately represents the theatrical makeup used by white people to look black in minstrel shows and the like, designed as racially offensive. That’s not what’s happening here.

Indeed a racist attitude, as some have called it, is not being enacted by the film-makers when it comes to Nina. If the cries of racism are true, then a film about Simone, a woman who was so proud to be black, wouldn’t have been made at all.

Will I see Nina? I’m not so sure, and if reports are true, it looks like there are many other issues beyond Saldana’s face that have blighted it. But I certainly won’t be boycotting the film, as suggested by an anonymous YouTube commenter above. I might just stick to watching the documentaries available instead.

@yozzie_osman

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Written by Yosra Osman

Yosra Osman is a mid-twenties film fan and self-confessed daydreamer of dangerous proportions