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By Arthur Banton | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012.

Recently at HuffPost Black Voices writer Nicole Moore wrote an essay about why actress Zoe Saldana would be an insufficient choice to portray legendary singer Nina Simone in a biopic. Moore argues, the choice of Saldana was questionable due to physical characteristics of Simone, characteristics that Saldana physically does not possess. Moore further argued this action by the film’s producers is a continuation of Hollywood erasing dark-complexioned Black Women in film. 

Moore’s assessment that Hollywood has an issue with dark-complexioned actresses of color has serious merit. You could extend the argument even further to include other creative industries such as music & television, and their penchant for lighter skin when it comes to female performers.

Saldana has been a lightning rod for discussion within the black community about the commodification and skin complexion preferences in Hollywood. Compounding the anger for some is that Zoe Saldana is not Black but a Latina, whose mocha complexion and ethnic features posit her in the body of a woman perceived to be Black. A great deal of Saldana’s success stems from her versatility as an actress and her aesthetics which have social capital. The responses to Moore’s essay have been profound including the creation of a petition at change.org addressed to the producers expressing displeasure at the decision.

My argument is that decision by the producers of the planned Simone biopic to cast Saldana was perhaps largely informed by the economics of the industry and the track record of previous high-profile bodies of work aimed at Black audiences.  In other words, the economics of the industry is simple: get a positive financial return on the investment (few investors are in business to lose money). The cinematic industry (Hollywood and independent cinema) is a business, and history indicates the best chance of recouping that investment is to cast an actress with a successful track record of opening a film to which audiences have responded. Some of the critics who’ve expressed their thoughts on various blogs on the selection of Saldana have suggested boycotting the film.

Films about Jimi Hendrix, The Notorious B.I.G., and the cadre of black recording artists (Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry) that were signed to Chess Records depicted in the film Cadillac Records have not filled the producers expectations at the box-office or with TV ratings. In fact, it appears that Sparkle(featuring the final performance of Whitney Houston) will join the ranks of films that Black audiences have boycotted or ignored. I’d be remiss if I failed to note that Tyler Perry’s most critically acclaimed films, The Family that Prey’s, Daddy’s Little Girls, I Can Do Bad by myself were also avoided and box-office disappointments in comparison to the movies featuring the infamous Madea character. Even one of the most positive films targeting Black audiences, Akeelah and the Bee, was also largely and sadly ignored at the box office.


So unfortunately, these examples and others have perhaps factored into the decision of why Zoe Saldana was selected to portray Nina Simone after their first choice, Mary J. Blige was unavailable (a point Moore even failed to acknowledge). Zoe’s talent is immense and certainly capable of delivering the acting performance this role certainly needs, equally, if not more importantly, she perhaps can draw a broader audience to the theater. Targeting just one demographic as opposed to casting a wider net for a broader audience could prove disastrous financially and hinder future biopics of black performers.

It appears the producers, might have taken into consideration Simone’s characteristics such as skin-complexion, ethnic features, singing ability that many people have addressed in their initial selection of Mary J. Blige. So the decision had to be made whether to pursue an actress or a singer (since a talent possessing both skill sets at a high level are rare) with name recognition that could bring people into the theatres and achieve a modicum of success like Lady Sings the Blues, What’s Love Got Do to Do With it, The Bodyguard, Dreamgirls,and Ray

While other actresses such as Gabrielle Union, Viola Davis, Kimberly Elise, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah might have delivered in some capacity the demands required of the role, (according to the producers), none were perfect, available, or have the star power and track record of Saldana (though Hudson would have been very intriguing choice). The criticism levied towards Saldana appears largely about her ethnic identity as an Afro-Latina of Dominican descent, born in New Jersey and less (ever so slightly) about her skin complexion which is lighter than Simone’s.

It’s rather interesting that throughout her career to this point, there were few opponents to Saldana’s roles (Drumline, Constellation, Guess Who, Star Trek) in which she portrayed an African American woman; but now that she’s the most high-profile, bankable woman of color in Hollywood (largely avoiding the racially stereotypical characters that African American and Latina actresses are often burdened), voices of opposition surface.

The films that Hollywood creates are a reflection of the consumption patterns of society. The films and themes that appeal to a broad demographic and make money will continue to be produced until audiences say otherwise. Black film audiences are not exempt from this model. The films that appeal and are consumed by mainstream Black audiences tend to revert to stereotypical character types that have been rooted in Hollywood since the inception of film but modified to contemporary tastes. In other words, Theodore Lincoln Perry, otherwise known as Stephen Fechit, whom at one point was the one of the wealthiest actors in Hollywood, but criticized for reinforcement of negative stereotypes has been repackaged in a variety of ways; now the financial rewards are greater with more avenues for spectatorship (via cable and satellite Television) and ancillary revenue from DVD and streaming video.

Another issue is that audiences do not interrogate what they consume, which can lead to the constant reproduction of style and aesthetics over substance. In the context of the Nina Simone biopic, this is not to say that Saldana isn’t talented, but in the eyes of the producers she has a broader appeal based on her track record with audience consumption patterns. The same racial logic that existed during Nina Simone’s era that limited her broad appeal still exists because the audience allows it.

Despite the negative responses, the producers should be commended for their desire on making a film about a singer who did not have the mainstream popularity of other Black artists whom deserve to have biopics made (Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Marian Anderson, Bert Williams, James Brown). More than a decade ago, when the late Gregory Hines portrayed the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson—several shades darker—in the biopic Bojangles, there was few if any opposition to the much lighter-complexioned Hines. In the end, he delivered an Emmy-nominated performance and equally important, a story about one of the most heralded, highest paid, respected, Black performers in the history of entertainment was brought to the screen.

That alone is worth celebrating.


Arthur Banton is a Filmmaker and Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Purdue University and graduate lecturer in the African American Studies and Research Center.



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