I have been following this story for some time with a mixture of amusement and horror; satisfaction too, I suppose, as it is nice to see that black grievance-mongers are equally irrational when the imagined offender is black rather than white. There is integrity in this, after the irrationality of it all.
Nina Simone’s tribute website calls her a “classically trained pianist who evolved into a chart-topping chanteuse and committed civil rights activist.” As a white kid growing up in the Sixties, I missed Simone almost entirely: she wasn’t a regular guest on TV variety shows. In college, I encountered aficionados who referred to her as brilliant, and I tried to appreciate her song stylings. She was one of those singers that I could understand why she was famous and exceptional without wanting to listen to her for pleasure. At the time I regarded Simone as a cult singer, but that was unfair; she was obviously more important than that. I was also unaware of her considerable significance in the civil rights
Three years ago, Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone in “Nina”, a major Hollywood film about the singer’s life, replacing singer Mary J. Blige, who was originally cast but dropped out. Immediately, the choice of Saldana, a rising black actress of Dominican and Puerto Rican parents best known for her work as Uhura on the “Star Trek” reboots, “Avatar,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”, was attacked. She wasn’t a singer, isn’t a “true” African-American and doesn’t resemble Simone sufficiently, the critics said.
All of these accusations are ridiculous on their face. Most biopics about famous singers, though not all, star actors rather than vocalists: all singing is dubbed in after the film anyway. When, in the history of drama, has there been a rule that the performer’s ethnicity had to match the role he or she was playing? I wrote about the foolishness of this issue most recently here. What matters isn’t that Yul Brenner wasn’t really a Thai, what matters is that he was fantastic at playing the King of Siam.
The lack of physical resemblance is the most bizarre complaint of all. Does the handsome Daniel Day Lewis resemble Abe Lincoln? Would it be possible to find a black actor who looked less like O.J. Simpson than Cuba Gooding, Jr., who is playing him on the current FX mini-series? To show business ears, such a complaint transcends ignorance. That’s why they call it “acting.,” you silly twits. When this controversy first erupted, I assumed the volcano would become dormant fast, in great part because Saldana is a compelling and interesting actress.
But no. When the trailer for the film came out recently, Mount Racial Outrage erupted with a vengeance.In the trailer, Saldana’s skin as Simone is darker than her own, and she is wearing a prosthetic nose to look more like her subject. The gist of the complaints is clear in this excerpt from an article in The Guardian:
“And why does this matter? Not only is the marginalisation of darker skinned actresses in Hollywood a huge problem, but Simone’s racial identity was a crucial part of her life. She was denied access to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia because of her race, but she was unbowed, using her musical genius to become a prominent voice in the civil rights movement. As Arie says in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “In the context of the politics of race in America, and the politics of race in the entertainment industry in America, to make a movie about a person like that and cast an actress that has to wear blackface and a prosthetic nose is tone-deaf.” In my opinion, it is an insult to Simone.
Why does Hollywood choose to darken an actor’s skin and create a prosthetic nose rather than casting someone of the desired skin tone and features? The fact that it is even considered as a matter for the costume department is problematic in itself: these are the features and skin tone that some of us are born with.
And no, Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman wearing prosthetics in “The Iron Lady” or “The Hours” is not the same thing. They are white women playing white characters. Saldana’s case is different because of what having a wider nose means in a society driven by Eurocentric notions of beauty that consider any deviations as undesirable.”
At the core of the controversy is the recent delusion that make-up is suddenly taboo when skin color is concerned. Vox’s “race and identity reporter” Victoria M. Massie embarrasses Vox and herself by writing, “A lot of the controversy is rooted in the fact that Saldana is a light-skinned actress of color (of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent) who is essentially donning blackface.”
No, she is not. Dark make-up isn’t blackface, which refers to the make-up convention used to mock black stereotypes in minstrel shows. I discussed this groos historical and logical misrepresentation in the post about “Othello.” Saldana is donning make-up to assist her portrayal of a real historical figure, just as actors and actresses have been doing as part of their craft for centuries. There is absolutely nothing unethical, racist or inappropriate for any actor to don any shade make-up in order to play a role. What matter most, however, are the actor’s skills. Blacks can play whites, whites can play blacks, Asians can play either, gay can play straights, and if a young actor plays an old character, the make-up isn’t “wrinkle-face. Unfortunately, the affirmative action mindset among some activists now extends to the performing arts: the primary objective, we are told, is to hire more black actors, whether they are the best choices for the role or not. Mary J. Blige. who was initially cast as Simone, has yet to prove she can act at all. Which is more of an honor to the memory of Simone, a skilled and nuanced performance by a professional actor, or a portrayal by an amateur actress with the right shaped nose?
Candace Norwood, an up and coming race-baiter who assisted Massie on the Vox piece, adds this twaddle:
“I think there are two important points when looking at this. The first being that it’s just ridiculous to spend money and effort making a light-skinned actress darker for the role when there are so many dark-skinned actresses who are equally, if not more, qualified to play Simone. Given our history of showing preference for people with light skin over those with darker skin, it is easy to see how the casting decision would quickly erupt. Secondly, considering how much Simone loved and promoted her dark skin, it is wrong and disrespectful to her legacy to cast a light-skinned actress to play her.”
I think you should try your theory when you start producing moves, Candace. Virtually everyone in the profession disagrees with you about not using make-up and other devices to allow a particular talent to play a character he or she does not physically resemple. This is pure ignorance, an ill-informed opinion about a craft you know nothing about, being published irresponsibly. Was it ridiculous to cast Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger? Was it ridiculous to cast Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot? Why spend the time and money to get Bradley Cooper to beef up so he resembled Chris Kyle in “American Sniper,” when it would have been easier to cast a lesser but bulkier actor who looked like Kyle already? Moreover, your opinion that there were plenty of darker skin actresses “equally, if not more, qualified to play Simone” is nothing but an unsupported opinion that in this context, is worthless. That choice was the director’s to make, and whether he was right or wrong will be determined by Saldana’s performance.
Since Saldana wasn’t cast because she had light skin, but because she is an extraordinary actress and has a fan base of her own, her casting was completely irrelevant to “our history of showing preference for people with light skin over those with darker skin.” As for the particular biases and sentiments of Simone herself being a consideration, this total and complete fantasy. The film is being made as entertainment and as a commercial product. No such film has any obligation to ensure that its subject would approve of it, or that the film would serve her objectives or political agenda. Indeed, many, if not most, subjects of Hollywood biographies would be horrified to know that a film of their life was being made at all. Simone is dead. Her opinion of the film is not an issue, and there is no obligation to turn a film about her life into a political product that advances causes she championed.
Meanwhile, the messages being put forth by contemporary civil rights advocates have devolved into incoherence. The uproar over the lack of black artists and projects featuring them in Hollywood has now been followed by contorted attacks on a major film about an important black singer, giving an exciting black actress an opportunity to show new range and depth. Well, yes, she’s black, but not the right kind of black, and besides, her casting in an insult to People of Broad Nose.
It is also worth mentioning that the attacks on Saldana herself could not be more unfair and cruel. After Saldana gave an interview about her feelings about playing Simone, the “Official Twitter for the Estate & Legacy of Dr. Nina Simone” sent Saldana a tweet that said,
“Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”
I wonder: Has it occurred to any of these anti-make-up warriors that the activist community’s increasingly oppressive political correctness demands, as well as its “gotcha!” mentality where the objective is to find political fault and racist intent behind every decision and project in order to bend others to their will, may be a major reason for the absence of diversity in Hollywood films? It would be if I were producing films or heading a studio, and racial bias would have nothing to do with it. Why make a movie about Nina Simone if this is what you have to put up with?
“You know what? I’ve changed my mind. Let’s do ‘The Connie Francis Story.'”