Zoe Saldana Portraying Nina Simone is a Gross Whitewashing of Unapologetic Blackness

A few months ago, I wrote that I did not support the casting of Zoe Saldana as songstress Nina Simone. And now, with a release date set, and a promotional poster and trailer revealed, I stand — even more ardently — in my assertion that Saldana’s casting is both inappropriate and violent to Simone’s radical pro-Black legacy.

Nina Simone’s core pro-Black value system is the cornerstone of most of her cultural contributions. As Ruth Feldstein describes in “‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore': Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s,” Nina Simone was radicalized following the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing (1963), and subsequently disavowed gradualism and respectability politics as effective methods towards racial justice.

My country is full of lies/We all gonna die/and die like flies

I don’t trust nobody anymore/They keep on sayin’ ‘Go slow.’

To Nina Simone, doing “things gradually, will bring more tragedy.” And she was right. With the gradual rollback of visible Jim Crow segregation, Black people are now merciless survivors and victims of mass incarceration, poisoned water, and politricks. Gradualism has worked to invisibilize anti-Blackness — its continuing violence conveniently hidden in a massive web of laws, schemes, and bureaucracies.

Nina Simone brilliantly intertwined gender and sexuality politics with her racial justice cultural activism. In many of her records, Nina’s protagonists are Black women, thus allowing space for the artist to masterfully detail the particular struggles and conflicts of Black women forced to live under the suffocating dynamics of white supremacist racism and patriarchy — namely how our sexuality is taboo and inappropriate in times of mass uprising.

In the song “Go Limp,” Nina tells the story of a young woman who decides to march. The protagonist’s mother warns her daughter to remain a nonviolent virgin. Feldstein writes “Simone used humor to suggest that it would not be easy for the young woman to meet these dual goals.”

Oh mother, dear mother, no I’m not afraid/For I’ll go on that march and return a virgin maid

With a brick on my handbag and a scoul on my face/And a barbed wire in my underwear to shed off disgrace.

“Go Limp” is illustrative in its wit and profundity; it’s a politically charged commentary on how respectability is especially (mis)applied when Black women’s sexuality is intrinsically present in Black uprisings.

Nina Simone is an exemplary icon for unapologetic Black cultural activism. She is versatile in her craft, vocal in her womanist radicalism, and authoritative in her self-determined identity. She renounced Eurocentric beauty standards, centered Black freedom over white feelings, and provoked thought through a sex-positive gendered lens.

And then there’s Nina’s appearance. A direct affront to white supremacist beauty standards, her appearance spoke volumes against those racist metrics that deem our natural physical attributes as ugly and unfitting. Nina embodied the mantra “the personal is the political.” Blogger Kirsti-Jewel of She’s.Got.The.Mic writes poignantly:

Nina Simone’s appearance shaped her experience, and view of the world. While she was political for many of her choices, she was inherently political because of her appearance.

And this is why Zoe’s casting as this incredibly complicated, multi-layered, dark-skinned, nappy-haired Black idol is violent.

The whitewashing of Black herstorical icons is standard practice in Hollywood. StonewallExodus: Gods and Kings, and Gods of Egypt are recent, well-publicized examples.

But given the current socio-political climate ushered in by the emergent Black Lives Matter movement, Nina Simone’s necessary depiction requires a significant level of pro-Black understanding. Saldana’s casting is brutal in its obvious whitewashing and racialized tone-deafness.

As a Black Lives Matter community organizer and independent media maker, I care about Nina’s holistically accurate representation. The movement of which I am a part brings to life her Black radical ideal. Our principles are those that are queer, trans*, and female-bodied affirming. We do not uplift the myth of racial gradualism and respectability, and refuse to be manipulated by the dominant political establishment. We are courageous in our justified anger, and vocal in our renunciation of anti-Blackness.

I understand that Zoe Saldana gotta eat. There is an entire scholarship on the lack of diversity in Hollywood, and I am absolutely positive that as an Afro-Latina actress, getting career-making roles is a sparse reality. But the portrayal of Nina Simone isn’t the role for her. The blotchy makeup and prosthetic noses pieces ain’t working. She is simply not fit to depict the icon whose radical socialization was shaped by both appearance and experience.

In this contemporary moment of mass racial upset, Nina’s representation is crucial. She must be embodied with perfection, care, nuance, and sensitivity. She need not be tamed to make her more digestible to a white mainstream audience.

Because it’s not a far guess that she’d be the last one to stand for that.

Arielle Newton is a Black Lives Matter activist, and Founder of BlackMillennials.com, a digital platform for the cultural empowerment of young people of the African diaspora.

Arielle Newton is a Black Lives Matter organizer, and Founder of BlackMillennials.com.

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