The Zoe Saldana-Nina Simone Controversy

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. Continue reading