How The Dark- vs. Light-Skin Debate Misses The Point About Black Women And The Media

By Guest Contributor Spectra, cross-posted from Spectra Speaks

Zoe Saldana (l) and Nina Simone. Courtesy: The Hollywood Reporter.

In case you missed it, Hollywood is gearing up to release a biopic of Nina Simone, an African-American singer, pianist, and civil rights activist whose music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights for blacks in the U.S.

I myself was only introduced to Nina Simone via a remake of her song, “Feeling Good.” I remember jamming to it in my dorm room when a friend of mine remarked that it was nowhere near being as good as the original. I promptly searched for the original on YouTube and was blown away by the command of her voice.

Further searches led me to “Strange Fruit“, a song (based on a famous poem written by Abel Meeropol) she performed about lynchings in the South, along with a slew of other noteworthy appearances that punctuated her career path as a Black woman singer-turned-political figure.

A biopic about Nina Simone will undoubtedly strike a chord with the African-American community. But given the recent controversy surrounding the project’s casting choices (i.e. Zoe Saldana, a Dominican actress as the lead), it’s not likely to be perceived as the “right” chord.

But when is it ever?

In a recent update on Facebook, Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone, shared her thoughts about the new film project. Here are, for me, the most important aspects of her comment:

Please note, this project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone Estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate.

If written, funded and CAST PROPERLY a movie about my mother will make an lasting imprint.

From Tragedy to Transcendence – MY VISION. The whole arc of her life which is inspirational, educational, entertaining and downright shocking at times is what needs to be told THE RIGHT WAY.

For all she endured while here and all of the lives she has touched, she DESERVES to be remembered for who she truly was; not some made up love story from a former nurse/manager (now deceased) who sold his life rights because of his relationship to Nina Simone.

You can read the rest of her comments here. In a nutshell, here are my two cents ..

Courtesy: blackfilm.com

I’m not surprised that a movie is being made about Nina Simone without consulting her family or estate. Not one bit. We know this story all too well: The Help and Untitled Nelson and Winnie Mandela Biopic also moved ahead without consent from the source …

I’m also not surprised that the screenplay for the Nina Simone biopic wasn’t written by a black woman, and thus, per her daughter’s concerns, will use that as license to perpetuate inaccuracies.

And finally, though sadly, I’m not surprised that black women have busied themselves with the question of who will “play” the role of Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana vs. dark-skinned black actresses) rather than focus on the root cause of misrepresentation in Hollywood: the absence of a strong network of black writers, producers, and studios.

This is the only comment I will be making on this issue because it’s always the same story, but even more frustrating, always the same rhetoric about how white people are appropriating our stories. As a community, we’re not doing nearly enough writing to make white people’s overly simplistic, inaccurate, saviorist depictions of our lives irrelevant.

The hard truth is this: if we spent more time creating media instead of criticizing it, there’d be way more diversity in representation, and way more stories and perspectives to which white people can be more frequently held accountable.

Pushing for ownership of both the infrastructure and content that portrays our lived experiences–that is the crux of the issue; not just the politics of light- vs. dark-skinned actresses. So, whereas I am completely on board with calling out the colorism behind the biopic’s casting choices (and the harmful message that’s being sent to young, dark-skinned black girls everywhere by having a light-skinned woman play Nina Simone), there aren’t enough strong lead roles written for women of color in Hollywood for me to fairly tell Zoe Saldana, a hard-working, talented brown woman, to ”sit this one out.”

When will black women, LGBTI, Africans, everyone-that-has-been-screwed-over-by-Hollywood finally get it that we need more autonomy over our media? When will we begin militantly fighting for mainstream media’s accountability to not just the story but the storyteller?

Whenever I pose this question, the conversation is almost always derailed by arguments that advocate about “allies” i.e. whether or not they have the right to be the owners and producers of our stories based on the fact that they have “skill.” Take for instance arguments that suggest the writer-director of the project, Cynthia Mort, doesn’t necessarily deserve the right to lead such a critical project with just chops from writing for shows such as Roseanne and Will and Grace. Or that Zoe Saldana is a brilliant actress regardless of her skin tone, and so will undoubtedly do a great job in her lead role as Nina Simone (and that therefore, black women shouldn’t be angry?).

But when we frequently prioritize debates about “industry expertise” vs. “authenticity/stakeholdership of the storyteller” we completely miss the point: our focus shouldn’t be just on the depiction of one character, or even the accuracy of one story, but about the (dis)empowerment of the storyteller, i.e. who writes and owns the f**king book.

Afrolicious, one of my favorite black woman media advocates says in her most recent blog post:

… we have so much work to do to get our stories spread. We need to build a media infrastructure as formidable as Hollywood’s that can distribute these stories and support those at the margins who are telling and creating them. We need to create platforms that we own, community-owned media centers that are not at the mercy of funding cycles or internet service providers. But most of all we need to keep telling our stories.

I couldn’t have said it better. Now, back to writing and documenting my work training and coaching African women and LGBTI groups in Southern Africa to tell their own stories, so that they can become thought leaders and change the world.

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  • http://twitter.com/blacklooks Sokari

    As Spectra states we live in a racialised world and I cannot imagine that the choice of Zoe Saldana was based on her acting talent / or not. If one looks at the media and I include the Black media, its not hard to imagine a time when dark-skinned Black women will be erased altogether. And even when they are present we end up with stupid comments about hair and the next minute you find women walking around with waist length weave ons- the message being if you are ‘unfortunate’ enough to be a dark-skinned Black woman just make sure you choose a weave for your hair.

    Back to the film. Whilst I completely agree with Spectra’s point on the need for ownership of “infrastructure and content that portrays our lived experiences….” Again we go back to the same old same old discussion on ‘telling our stories” and the call to acting on this, nothing new here. But I don’t think this is because Black women, LGBTI. Africans … don’t get this point – on the contrary I believe more and more Black, Queer and Africans are making films than ever before – for sure not enough but it is happening. Take for example the bi-annual Pan-African film [FESPACO] festival in Burkina Faso, which began in 1969! Take a look at the excellent documentary films being made by Black women. OK we may not have such a great presence in the mainstream film industry but I don’t even see that as a measure of the quality or quantity of Black filmmakers as so much rubbish is being produced there anyway.

    Back to Nina Simone – I have every song she ever made and had the privilege of seeing her at London’s Ronnie Scott Jazz club in 84/85 [not sure which] not a week goes by without her voice entering in my life. and from everything I have read and now know about this film, I doubt I will ever watch it. Bio pics are never easy or really satisfactory, I would rather watch a documentary but I do think the depiction of the character and accuracy of the story are important otherwise what is the point of a bio pic? By the way there is an excellent documentary on Nina with her daughter which I watched years ago. I can’t remember any details of the film and have been searching for it so if anyone reading this knows anything please share.

  • Dot

    Quick question re: history of slave trade + race. Do African-descended people living in Latin American identify as black as opposed to some other other identity like mulatta/mestiza? Are they only seen as black by USians because of the US context of the one-drop rule? Does the historical absence of the one-drop rule in Latin American affect how Afro-Latinas self-identify?

  • Moionfire

    This post is a little offensive. I notice that when it comes to colorism, we are always told that we should just focus on alternative media and that we shouldn’t wish a sista out of a job. This is a great tactic to shut down darker skinned black women when discussing hollywood racism. Funninly enough, when it comes to other racial isssues, this tactic is never used. it is only used when we are talking about the erasure of darker skinned and broader featured black women

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I am not going to keep my mouth shut about colorism in Hollywood. Yes, ultimately we need more control over our own stories, but we can work on that while still critiquing the film and television programming that white-wash and light-wash characters. I like Zoe Saldana and I think she is a good actress, but while I would not consider her light skinned she does not represent physically the kind of black woman Nina was. Nina had dark skin, nappy hair, and features no one would question coming straight from Africa (as in no racial ambiguity there). It would be nice to see a black woman who isn’t viewed as “exotic” or pallatable because of their potentially mixed race background in the role. I don’t think most people were questioning Zoe’s claim to “blackness” when critiquing this choice but why they couldn’t even pick a dark skinned actress who doesn’t fit into that “exotic” meme to play a dark skinned, kinky hair-having, broad-featured, curvy woman. Also, I think some of the annoyance (at least for me) came from the fact that the casting folks seemed to go with a shallow pick, a black female actress with cross-over appeal that is relatively well known and popular. They probably thought they were doing something progressive by not casting Beyonce in this role. It reminds me of the casting of Frieda Pinto in Miral as the titular Palestinian woman. It was obvious they were playing off the success of Slumdog Millionaire and so the brown Pinto was cast to play brown Arab Miral. Guess all of us brown folks look the same!

    • Dot

      I do agree that quite often in Hollywood, brown people are interchangeable; but Freida Pinto does have a striking facial resemblance to the author of the semi-autobiographical novel Miral.

  • Nikita

    This to me is not about authentic blackness. This is about can she carry off the spirit of the woman who sang Strange Fruit? Can she convey her life correctly and that does take knowledge about history and intimate knowledge of being discriminated against due to black folks/minorites and the world’s problems with dark skinned people and how that – how she had to overcome that big issue not only in the world but in the culture she was a part of. Let’s not pretend that we don’t know about the paper bag tests that blacks did with each other like light skin made you more worthy. To pretend that those of dark skin STILL do not catch it within and without our culture is dishonest. If she can be Nina Simone – get into that character and BE her, I don’t, for the record, care where she comes from. In the same way that Jennifer Hudson played Winnie Mandela, if she is qualified and she can let her do so. Let’s also not pretend though that the creation of others who are mulatto, light skinned or have features that are not clearly identified as black don’t get preference in Hollywood. Exiticism is real and it plays out on screens and in real life all of the time with many minorities. Dark skinned actresses are not the norm on the TV screen unless they play certain roles. Seeing that AA women of dark skin DID participate in the Civil Rights movement and are rarely given a chance to shine on screen, I do understand the desire fo some to see them on the screen when they are generally not portrayed as glamorous or creative like they have the RIGHT to do so – like their talent is their own and it is beautiful and should be exhibited as close to the truth as possible too.
    A lot of folks are placed in roles that the really do not fit but it is easier for the mainstream audience to see them in a certain setting. Alfre Woodard and her weight gain to play the part of a maid who by the way is active and cleans all day and she is also walking back and forth to the bus etc. so the idea that she was not in better shape as the maid in the movie ” The Help” immediately comes to mind. I don’t mind that folks from other parts of the disapora playing each other in movies – pretty much our histories are in step with each other so we prolly will have the depth and knowledge base to play the historical parts. Another truth is, where we are from DOES color how we feel about certain things though, so let’s not pretend that isn’t true either. I just don’t want folks to pretend that there are NOT other things at work here. This is the heart of the issue and it is more than just she is light skinned/ brown skinned not dark like Nina Simone. Other – many other things are at work here and Hollywood took the road they usually take and folks are tired of it. Not of Zoe, but Hollywood’s usual choice to pretend people of certain color and shade did not and do not contribute to the world in any productive way.

    • Nikita

      I meant exoticism

  • rawreader

    Many years ago I heard author Barbara Neely say that she would be afraid of selling the rights to her mystery series to Hollywood because it would be important to her to see someone who looked like her dark-skinned, thick protagonist on screen. It is not unreasonable to wish for a diversity of representations of black people in the media, and to mourn the fact that, to crib Simone, “Peaches” and “Saffronia” are always on screen and not “Aunt Sarah.” I like Zoe Saldana a lot, but the reality is that people do like for biopics to have people who can make themselves have some resemblance to the people they play. Otherwise it can be distracting, and here, for a variety of both aesthetic and political reasons, disappointing. And I think it is not just about phenotype or color here, but presence. I’ve probably watched every movie she’s been in, and I don’t know that she can pull this off, and that’s a fair critique. As for this article, it is INCREDIBLY dismissive of the realities of how hard it has been for black people to produce things in the industry, and to not acknowledge that critique is often half the battle of getting a foot in the door is is not being fair to the many people who have been working hard. There is a great deal of writing out there. A great deal of art.

  • happyappa

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I’m sad that people think she is not “black enough” to play the part when she apparently identifies as being racially black. On the other hand, Hollywood would probably be less likely to cast a darker-skinned or non-mixed race person and I don’t want them to get away with it. This is somewhat similar to Keanu Reeves being the go-to guy for many Asian roles (not sure how he identifies himself). The fact that the movie is being made without the involvement of Simone’s family, etc. is not a good sign though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Ibrahim.Ayodeji.Salawu Ibrahim Salawu

    This is the best write-up i’ve seen on this issue. I thought I was loosing my mind on other blogs, where colorism was being really blindly sanctioned. The point you make here about not wanting to tell Zoe Saldana to sit this one out is a perfectly valid one however. It’s a biopic, a genre i’m not really keen on anyway and it hasn’t been sanctioned by Nina’s camp.
    I realised a really depressing irony in a lot of the “we’re all black. Why can’t you focus on the performance” thing. We expect the police to be able to tell us apart. We expect our colleagues and classmates to be able to tell us apart. I’ve been driven to boiling point numerous times in all-white environment where i’m inconceivably mistaken for some next black guy, and what’s worse the racist fool acts indignant in response to my discomfort as though I should totally understand how we all look like.

    We’re enabling ignorance with this ish. I’d be more comfortable with this kind of thing if it were like the Cloud Atlas adaptation where meronym was described as quite dark skinned but in all fairness (lol) dark-skinned is very objective, and Halle Berry looks perfect for the role.

    Real world situation, when I was 14 my brother and I were stopped by the police. They didn’t explain to us what we’d done wrong until 40 or so mins later when a little white girl at the back of the police car was meant to see if we we’re the people who’d robbed her. I would’ve preferred being in a station or at least somewhere less open.
    but no they had us standing on a busy street with buses filled with people staring at us.
    That was a real optimism killer.

  • Normaltrouble

    Marvelous, far reaching article.

    I am going to be thinking and feeling about the storytellers, who tells the stories, the story owners, who owns the story, and the story and how it all intersects and interacts.

    I posted a link of this on my lj, I am “normaltrouble” over there.
    Food for thought. A whole day’s worth of meals, in fact.

    (disclaimer: I am a white middle aged woman, btw)

  • RMJ

    Ugh, I’m sick of these movies that don’t consult and bring on the people closest to the person they are writing about, and in fact go on to screw ‘em over.

    I do want to point out though that there are black writers and stories that are great, but Hollywood uses this “well, we don’t want to discriminate based on color!” excuse to hire more white people because they are more “talented” (which, because of sheer numbers, there might be more talented white people… but in a movie about race, you should probably make sure that people who know what the hell they are talking about are writing it). I myself am white, and I just can’t believe the number of white writers I know who never consult actual writing/advisement by minorities when writing about them. Lord knows that when my main character in the novel I’m working in turned out mixed-race, I started diving into biographies, news stories, etc (which is actually how I stumbled on racialicious for the first time) and begging friends to read it over.

    Of course, I am probably laying too much blame on the writer’s feet. The producers and the funders probably have a fair share in dictating material and making it “friendly for a white audience” because, you know, we don’t want all that yucky guilt over bad stuff those who share our privilege do, now do we? That’s not good for the bottom line! /facepalm

    • Samuels

      Just thought I’d comment and say that this mixed-race person is glad there are people like you out there who care.

  • http://twitter.com/LEEandLOW Lee & Low Books

    I agree that I don’t think it has to be an either/or
    situation in terms of criticism vs. media creation. Cultivating “a strong
    network of black writers, producers, and studios” is a big undertaking, but
    it’s necessary to have that kind of infrastructure in order for these stories
    to be heard by more than just a modest audience. The casting issues, the
    authorship issues, none of it will ever stop unless there are people at the top
    who care.

    I will say that I think it’s worth noting the number
    of different levels at which change is required in order for these voices to be
    heard. I work for a multicultural publisher and we often discuss how in book
    publishing there is an astonishing number of people who have their hands in
    things: authors, agents, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers,
    readers. And that’s book publishing, which is small beans compared to Hollywood in terms of $$.

    The question is whether existing media channels can
    be better integrated so these stories and artists don’t drop through the
    cracks, or whether it’s necessary to actually start from scratch: new studios,
    new networks, new everything. Part of me wishes that weren’t necessary, because it’ll make things more segregated than they already are. But Hollywood is
    such a stiff old institution that it’s hard to see any real change happening anytime soon.

  • STaylor in Austin

    I’m disappointed and saddened about this article, the
    linking article on Clutch and several of the comments this site and the
    majority of comments on Clutch

    I agree and would prefer a black woman as the screenwriter
    for no other reason than there are so few writing Hollywood
    scripts and that a black woman’s perspective on such a pivotal figure in art
    and history would be very welcomed . It would also be great if the movie could
    have a black producer or executive
    producer ( and director). Until there are more POC’s in leadership roles
    nothing will ever change

    I’m frustrated
    because this seems to be the tired “who’s authentically black”
    argument, regarding Zoe Saldana. Would I like to see Adepero Oduye or another
    actress in the role? Yes I would. Does Hollywood
    have a pathological problem with dark-skinned actors? Definitely. Do Hollywood execs over-represent mixed race / light skinned
    actors in film rather than using non-mixed / darker skinned actors? Yes. But to
    have a running “School Daze-esque” discussion on whether Saldana is
    black ( or black enough) because of her
    coloration and the fact that she has Dominican roots is ridiculous.

    Per a NPR article
    from last year, blacks go to the movies 21 percent more than the general
    population and are 22 percent more likely do attend multiple viewings of the
    same movie. The solution is economic. STOP going to movies and STOP supporting
    media that doesn’t support us. If a restaurant treated you like a second class
    citizen you’d stop going there. Hollywood
    treats POC’s like we don’t exist, yet we still line up to give them our money. It
    wouldn’t take long to affect a change once Hollywood started bleeding money, but of
    course this will never happen. We’re too busy arguing about the who passes the
    paper bag test and is “authentically” black

    Link to site that reviews the script

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/weve-read-it-thoughts-on-nina-simone-feature-project-script

    Link to NPR article

    http://www.npr.org/2011/06/24/137374242/minorities-at-the-movies-fill-seats-but-not-screens

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      AMEN.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm…I don’t think the dichotomy presented here is very fair or accurate. There are black creatives trying to own their stories, but by and large they have nowhere near the capital of their peers. (The main exception is, of course, Tyler Perry.) Just because most black filmmakers and writers haven’t gotten to that point of ownership doesn’t mean their criticisms should be seen as illegitimate or tarnished. And even if we did own more studios, etc., that wouldn’t automatically prevent inaccurate or distorted representations of black people from being produced. Critiquing the distortions of mainstream media and working to own our own creative outlets go hand in hand.

    Oh, and by the way, criticizing the casting of this film is not the same as hating on Zoe Saldana. Most of the criticism I’ve seen has been aimed at the makers of the film, not her.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      I absolutely agree with you. Owning our stories won’t remove colorism / racism in Hollywood. Call me a pessimist — I don’t think that’s ever going away. So, as with any abusive relationship, I’m leaving and starting life anew. I proudly put my dollar where my mouth is — I pay to see indie flicks, I review independent films, I am currently only purchasing and reading books by the Diaspora etc. In so doing, i’m supporting the artists that are trying to make it on their own terms, I’m supporting our own stories.

      I disagree with your read of my article — that it presented a dichotomy. This sentence: “our focus shouldn’t be JUST on the depiction of one character” obviously suggests that we need more than JUST the empowerment of black filmmaking professionals. Criticism is important, but it shouldn’t occupy our minds 100% of the time is what I was saying.

      • Anonymous

        You are presenting a dichotomy, though: “Criticism is important, but it shouldn’t occupy our minds 100% of the time is what I was saying.” You’re assuming that the critics are only focused on criticism and not involved in efforts to take ownership over their work. Yet several of the people I know who have questioned the casting are very much involved in black artistic organizations that have the goals you outline as their agenda. Your whole post relies on a false notion: that because these people are putting some effort into a critique of this film project, they’re not expending effort on other initiatives.

        • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

          I stand by that sentence. I’m specifically speaking to people who really don’t do anything else but complain — and let’s not pretend that there aren’t a lot of them. The thing is, i’m not even saying they shouldn’t complain; I’m offering them a way to channel their energy/frustration — support indie artists. Your entire defense relies in extremity, despite the times in the post where I make it clear that I get why people are frustrated, and attempt to make the case for a different approach since the old one isn’t working.

          Meanwhile, if there’s just as much effort being dedicated to progressive initiatives as there is to criticism why does the web make more noise about one? Is it because we’re not documenting our work? Taking the time to validate the work we ARE doing to subvert the power structure in Hollywood? That in itself is part of the problem. I’m VERY aware of people doing the work — but they don’t get written about, they barely are supported. The truth is, whether or not you want to concede, we’re more likely to share a post about racism than an announcement of a new indie film with black writers, producers, actors.

          If my “false notion” is indeed false, then I wouldn’t people still trying to talk to me about dark skin vs. light skin. I’d have more people responding with look, here, all this stuff is being done, written about, there’s a vibrant black filmmaking industry here there and everywhere. There’s AFFRM, there’s the african filmmakers network etc. That would be more useful to me, as we’d be sharing resources and making important projects visible, than dismissing an attempt to reframe the argument simply because a few good people are working hard. I’m one of those people. And we could use with a little more support/shouting/raving about the work we’re doing, not the work Hollywood isn’t letting us do.

  • Kristina

    I agree that we do have to focus on creating our own media. But I don’t think that it means we can’t criticize media. I don’t like the attempt to however subtly diss women, who have voiced their displeasure at this casting. I also find that… justifying Zoe playing Nina because there are few roles for WOC is a bit ridiculous. So no matter that her choice as lead actress is totally dishonest to the once living being that she is portraying? Colorism is real, its insidious, and creating our own media maybe one way to combat it, but being silent when we see it smack dab in our faces isn’t one of them. It’s not cool to erase who a person was. Not at all. And Nina’s specific “look” was integral in the life she led and career she had. Would people feel like it was accurate to have Brandi play Etta James in the story of her life? I just resent this author’s attempt to shush the chorus of black women of all shades around this topic. We can criticize and create at the same damn time!

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Thanks for your comment. I certainly didn’t suggest that we can only do one or the other.

      “our focus shouldn’t be just on the depiction of one character,” operative word being “just” as in, we need to do more, and I’m suggesting another approach that doesn’t get as much sensationalism as the same old they’re racist rhetoric. Hollywood is racist. Colorism is real. I don’t think that is going to change at all. So I think it’s time we refocused our efforts. No one is ‘shushing’ anyone.

  • Anonymous

    I feel as if the author here is really young or really believes that we live in that colorblind meritocracy that people on the right claim that we do.
    It is really facile to suggest that there aren’t more black projects b/c black people AREN’T attempting to write, produce, direct, and raise money for films. They clout that blacks BEHIND the scenes have is pretty limited unless they want to show coonery and buffonery on the part of black people.
    Meanwhile, a white actor or actress or director who has a breakout star is given a LOT of power to greenlight projects or placed in a starring role.

    My issue with this casting is that Zoe Saldana is in no way the kind of talent that should have this role. It’s as ridiculous as Beyonce as Etta James (okay, not quite as ridiculous, b/c Zoe can ACT, but she is not an actor’s actor).

    Denzel Washington is much darker than Malcolm X (who was very fair) but he’s an actor’s actor who made you forget that (b/c even the dyed red hair was odd looking on him). She just isn’t a mature actress who can really inhabit a role and make you forget who she is playing. But she has become the go to black actress these days. There are just actresses that I feel have more skill and depth who could really inhabit this role, and this isn’t the kind of movie that is supposed to be the next Iron Man in terms of ticket sales so it is a shame that they didn’t use one of those long working, rarely seen women (Tyra Ferrell, N’Bushe Wright for example). This is a role for the kind of person who could be on the stage…maybe even and Audra McDonald (although would this role require shaving of the head?)

    But let’s not act like lighter (yes, I agree that Zoe is not very light nor European looking the way everyone claims, she is just Hollywood skinny) actresses don’t get roles with considerably less talent, esp. when headlining or esp. when they are supposed to play someone’s love interest. I’m bothered by the fact that brown and ebony skinned women are rarely seen as anyone that any man would want to touch, but that is a post for another day.

    If you aren’t going for a physical match, which can be hard, at least go for someone who can make you forget (although when you get both, it is magical, like Julianne Moore in Game Changer as a recent example).

    • Vandia Neinerblus

      I agree completely. Zoe,as much as I like her, is not in my mind a Nina Simone type. A certain degree of depth and psychological mindedness should be expected of such role. On the other hand her being a light-skinned woman should not be held against her or be seen as another instance of colorism. I personally don’t know enough about what goes into these decisions. What do you guys think of Lauren Hill?

      • Anonymous

        She hasn’t acted in a while and is pretty troubled but I think that if she was stable, it is probably a role she could inhabit and own. I like Lorraine Touissant as well, for the quality of her speaking voice and her acting.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

      @nicthommi:disqus

      Why do you think Saldana isn’t a good choice for this role? From what I’ve seen of her work, she seems to like doing roles that tend to be demanding and challenging, and not just the lightweight/flower vase type of roles. Based on what I’ve seen of her over the years, I think she IS a good actress who tries to bring something more to the roles she’s able to get,especially after seeing her in THE LOSERS, in which she plays a hardcore fighting hitwoman and in COLOMBIANA, where she proved she can do action roles/carry a film (even though it wasn’t that successful, but,honestly, that was more the fault of the director and screenwriter, who simply settled for doing a generic by-the-numbers action flick, rather than doing something unique and different.). I admit, I like her, and this would be a great chance for her to really stretch her acting muscles. It dosen’t sound like you’re actually seen any of her films at all,or you wouldn’t be stating that she has no talent,plus she’s been in the acting game over a decade—long enough to gain that same talent. And she kicked ass in AVATAR, the movie that made her enough of a name to get picked for this project.

      Also, she isn’t light-skinned at all—that’s just a picture of her with WAY too much light—she’s as dark brown as I am, and a natural beauty on top of that. For people wondering why she’s claiming Latina heritage, her dad’s Puerto Rican, her mom’s black Dominican—I read in an interview she did that after her parents got divorced, her mother moved the family from New York (where she was born and raised) back to the DR (Dominican Republic) where she spent most of her teenage years. She has also said in MORE than one interview that she’s proud of BOTH her black and Latin heritage period. Here’s a quote from the IMDB site from one of her interviews on that subject:

      “When I go to the D.R., the press in Santo Domingo always asks, “¿Qué te
      consideras, dominicana o americana?” (What do you consider yourself,
      Dominican or American?) I don’t understand it, and it’s the same people
      asking the same question. So I say, time and time again, “Yo soy una
      mujer negra.” (“I am a black woman.”) [They go,] “Oh, no, tú eres
      trigueñita.” (“Oh no, you are ‘dark skinned’”) I’m like, “No! Let’s get
      it straight, yo soy una mujer negra.” (“I am a black woman.”)”

      I also came across another quote from Saldana on another site amongst a slide show on Afro-Latinos,saying that she didn’t like how some Latinos wanted to play up their European and Indio heritage, but totally disparaged their African heritage—she said that Latinos should embrace ALL their heritages, not just the white/Indio ones. I totally agree with her on that one.

      In a nutshell, the woman knows EXACTLY who and what she is—a black American Latina—and she’s made it clear that she is very proud of being one. Seems like it’s .I find it funny how white Latinos don’t EVER receive any static for claiming that they’re both white AND Latino—no one ever says to them that they can’t be both,since white is the coveted color,due to institutional racism, but let a black person claim both black and Latino heritage, and people scream & holler that they’re trying to be something they’re not, as if there is NO possible way somebody could be both. Hell, all you need is one black (or two) parent and a Latina/o parent to get together and have a black Latino child—it ain’t that hard to figure out. Also, she was just on the cover of ESSENCE Magazine—if she didn’t want to be ID’d as black, why the hell would she even be on the cover in the first place? Check her IMDB page–it’s a HUGE issue for a lot of people who can’t grasp that a person can be black and Latino at the same time, because we’re rarely been taught anything about the history of black people on the South American continent, and don’t know jack about it. That’s why I always recommend the Henry Louis Gates doc BLACK IN LATIN AMERICA, but for what I’ve read on the net, some folks have issues with that doc,too.

      Hope that settles it—I also hope that Saldana will be able to use her influence as a now-known name to make sure that her portrayal of Simone is an accurate and faithful one.

      • Mickey

        All you have to do is show this clip to all of those confused people about being both Black & Latino.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uILy-WF48Zs
        The problem is that in America, the stereotype of a Latino is someone who is too dark-skinned and exotic looking to be white, but not black-looking enough to be black. People think of the likes of Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony, Maria Choncita Alonso, Rita Moreno, and many others. No one thinks of someone like Zoe or even Christina Milian who has had similar problems getting Latin roles because they want someone of the former appearance.

      • Anonymous

        I’m glad you are a Zoe Saldana superfan but the fact that I’m underwhelmed by her acting ability does not mean that I’ve never seen her work. So that’s a leap that is totally unnecessary to take and inaccurate and you can state your opinion of her acting without suggesting that I haven’t seen it just because we disagree.

        So I stand by my statement, since I think there are better actresses who could either make me FORGET how unlike Nina Simone she looks AND there are better actresses who probably are a bit closer physically to what Nina Simone looks like. And I think that even though they are/were both Black, how Nina Simone looked did impact that experience she had…not all Black is treated/viewed equally in the U.S., and that has been true for a while. Black is not just black when white people are pulling the strings.

        • Michelle Kirkwood

          @nicthommi:disqus

          I wouldn’t call myself a “superfan” of Saldana or anything like that—I’ve just noticed her work over the years enough to notice that she can act,and seems to do some interesting work beyond the typical “flower vase” roles someone with her striking looks would normally be shoehorned into. I assumed that you hadn’t seen her work only because you didn’t specify what you had seen her in that convinced you she wouldn’t be good enough for this role,that’s all. So, no it wasn’t some big inaccurate,unnecessary leap to make on my part,because again, you hadn’t provided any specific examples or evidence to show why she isn’t a good fit for the role.

          I do agree,though,that it was Nina Simone’s distinctive look ( for the 1960′s) that was an integral part of her musical and social impact as an entertainer. And, yeah, it would have been interesting if the filmmaker had actually gotten an actress who physically resembled her, and I’m sure that there are such actresses. I agree with that last half of your statement,definitely.

  • Eva

    I’m not surprised either, but I’m glad it’s not Halle Berry. BTW, I never thought Diana Ross looked anything like Billie Holiday (who sang Strange Fruit first BTW), and Denzel sort of looked like Malcolm X but I think a lot of that was make up.

    • Anonymous

      Not makeup…just hairdye and glasses. They didn’t do anything to his skin b/c no way was his dark skin ever going to look like Malcolm X’s light skin.
      He’s just such a good actor that you didn’t notice that they look nothing alike. Which is why a really good actor should get roles like this. Zoe Salada is not at that level. She’s no Paula Patton, but this requires some Viola Davis/Angela Bassett acting.

      • Eva

        Viola Davis yes! But when I saw “Lady Sings the Blues.” I kept seeing Diana Ross, however when I saw “Malcolm X” I didn’t see Denzel.

  • Bran

    “… we have so much work to do to get our stories spread. We need to build
    a media infrastructure as formidable as Hollywood’s that can distribute
    these stories and support those at the margins who are telling and
    creating them.”

    Wow. Easier said than done. It’s like you’re blaming black people for not already having their own Hollywood. Okay, yeah let’s do it!

    You know most of the people who’d want this don’t have the power or money to acquire it and those who do don’t care because they already have power and money. Black people are already struggling to put their own stories out there, using sites like youtube or other media outlets that can be accessed without first needing billions of dollars and man power to create your own media infrastructure. Except no one’s watching them because no one’s promoting them or paying attention to them. So how about promoting them instead of saying ‘you know black people, you should totally just make your own hollywood k? get to it!’ Jesus.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Well, why aren’t we watching them? There are amazing groups like AFFRM attempting to subver the power structure. There ARE very affluent black people in entertainment. And YES, there are black filmmakers making incredible media in alternative channels / independently. They rely on our support to make it to mainstream on their own terms. No one is suggesting an either/or strategy here; just that too much attention just goes to criticizing with not enough to solutions.

      “Blaming black people for not having their own Hollywood.” I’m not even going to touch that. Thanks for your comment.

  • Vandia Neinerblus

    Two comments:
    1.
    A wonderful article but I wish you provided more context for “strange
    fruit”. As important as this song is in the history of racism in this
    country, it is much more closely identified with another black singer-
    Billie Holiday. I am afraid your piece suggests to its readers she(
    Simone) was the original singer.

    2. Is Zoe Saldana black or something else? In my opinion it is
    disingenous and misleading to describe a woman born and raised in New
    Jersey as “the Dominican actress”…….Isn’t this Otherising her? Has
    she ever described herself as something other than black? Thanks.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Thanks for your comment — I’d actually meant to showcase Nina’s voice/talent/power behind her music. Important to clarify that it wasn’t written by her (or made famous by her), certainly. I admittedly moved through that as I was attempting to talk frankly about how I came to know her. It actually was through that cover. But that wasn’t the main part of my piece so I didn’t spend time on it. Thanks for clarifying though.

      re: Zoe Saldana, that she grew up in New York doesn’t negate her Dominican heritage/or that she calls herself black. She’s given afrolatinas visibility by her unwavering affirmation of both her blackness and latina heritage. So I wouldn’t see it as erasing — but certainly, the folk who’ve been saying things like “Zoe should go sit her Dominican ass down” do. There’s a lot of xenophobia at play here in my opinion. Thanks for raising this issue though. Race vs. Ethnicity aren’t as talked about often.

    • niksmit

      Good point about the history of “Strange Fruit.”
      Saldana identifies as racially Black and ethnically Latina. I’ve never heard of her saying that she’s not Black. Would you have preferred that the author write that or Dominican-American/Puerto Rican for more accuracy? However, I think DR is one of those countries that grants dual citizenship if you’re born abroad to a citizen parent . . .

      • Anonymous

        I personally dislike the level of ignorance that exists regarding the presence of people who are of African descent in Latin America. Both Black and non-Black Americans seem really badly informed of the fact that no matter what words are used, the people in Latin America have the same racial heritage (and were were enslaved and are discriminated against no matter what they call themselves) as black people in the U.S. (who everyone seems to conveniently forgot are largely mixed race). I guess my only quibble is that it probably IS necessary to explain what you mean since so many people love to treat her ethnicity as proof that she isn’t Black. For some reason, even WE don’t know how we got to the Western hemisphere. She isn’t even ambiguous looking so I’m not sure what that is about. I think that if you’re Black and have ever been around Dominicans, you would know that aside from language, they can’t see any difference between them and us because their isn’t one. I’m a dark-skinned Black person and i’ve been asked by Dominicans if I was Dominican on many occasions. B/c um, yeah…

        My issue with her casting is that she lacks the acting talent/depth/credentials to make her lack of any resemblance to Nina Simone look like a reasonable casting choice. And her looks do allow her to be promoted ahead of other Black actresses who probably do do a much better job.

    • http://mclicious.org/ Sarah Hannah Gomez

      re: your first point. Exactly! If I am thinking correctly, Simone chose to sing it not just because it’s majorly important and really good but also because of Billie Holiday’s legacy. And re: your second point, she’s allowed to be both.

  • miga

    I get that Zoe Saldana is quite a bit lighter than Nina Simone, but when did she suddenly become “light skinned?”

    • Anonymous

      Obviously, it’s a relative term. I would consider her light-skinned, though.

      • Anonymous

        It’s ironically relative, because as a hispanic actress, she would be considered way too dark for many hispanic roles, in a hispanic production, so she’s in a position where she can’t win with anybody…

        • Anonymous

          That’s hyperbole. She wins quite a lot. She’s Black but being Hispanic lets white casting agents treat her like she’s not (sometimes). She currently have more privilege in Hollywood than a lot her peers (and not surprisingly, the other Black actresses treated like her are also very delicately built and aren’t dark-skinned).

  • http://twitter.com/MalikPanama NYC’s No Lark

    I missed an obvious point that I didn’t even consider. You are correct. Considering how few and far between there are projects for Black women as the main protagonist, it doesn’t exactly make sense to throw Zoe under the bus for taking this role. Like she should wait years, if ever, in an effort to “take one for the team” and not star in the role. I think you could of at least named dropped the AAFRM considering they are already doing what you’re advocated considering they’re about to release their 4th film and are currently batting 1.000 as far as quality movies go.

    • The Yoshi-chan

      You have a point. There are so many Black YouTubers that are making high-quality stuff on the Net that need some signal boosting, and like you said: many more grassroots and Indie filmakers that are already doing this stuff. We just have to keep on working to get it out there, that’s all!

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      RIGHT!? I actually did mean to include AFFRM in this republishing but the piece ran earlier. I plan to do a part 2 of this conversation on my blog and highlight AFFRM, and other amazing initiatives we should be supporting (in addition to calling out the racist/colorist behavior). Thanks for your comment shouting them out! If you know anyone there, do let them know I’m a huge fan and would love to interview them! :)