Why It Matters Who Plays Nina Simone

Nina Simone was more than just an iconic jazz and soul singer. Using her music as a platform for change, Nina wrote songs that expressed the political and social tensions of the day. She was a voice of and for her people. From her blunt “Mississippi Goddamn” to her classic “Four Women”, Nina Simone cared deeply for her fellow African Americans and always spoke on her discomfort with the inequity inherent in the United States that oppressed her race.

Few of her contemporaries during her day were as bold. Few had the audacity and widespread audience comparable to the appeal Nina Simone had, unable to pack concert halls while unapologetically being as intense, searing blunt and unyielding. Nina Simons was an original. Her daughter Simone wrote on Facebook in August,

Nina was one of the most outspoken, prolifically gifted artists using the stage to speak out against racism during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Her friends included Betty Shabazz, Lorraine Hansberry (my godmother), Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Miriam Makeba, Stokely Carmichael, presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens worldwide. Had she become a classical pianist, which was her dream…shattered, I doubt she would have found her true destiny. Nina Simone was a voice for her people and she spoke out HONESTLY, sang to us FROM HER SOUL, shared her joy, pain, anger and intelligence poetically in a style all her own. My mother stood up for justice; by any means necessary…she was a revolutionary til the day she died.

What Simone shared openly in this post is that she did not want newly cast Zoe Saldana to play her mother in the scheduled biopic set to depict her late mother during her later years.

New Biopic Causes Furor Over Skin Complexion

Simone’s vented anger about the choice of Zoe Saldana was echoed through the cyber world. One person, Vonmiwi Culvera, wrote on Simone’s post,

Hollywood seriously needs to drop the popularity BS and go with women who are just as talented and just as beautiful for movie roles. I highly recommend: Adepero Oduye, Heather Headley, India Arie, Nicki Micheaux, Lauryn Hill, Janelle Monae, Angie Stone, Veronika Bozeman, Meshell Ndegeocello, or Adina Porter for the role of NINA SIMONE!!! If you’ve never heard of some of these names it’s because the black media is just as guilty of rendering these darker hued actresses and singers invisible.

This poster and many others continued to resist the idea of Zoe Saldana as the right choice, mainly because Nina Simone was a dark-skinned woman and Zoe Saldana is of a lighter hue and of mixed heritage. Fan  Demeriese Valier started an online petition (that has more than 2, 000 signatures), stating just that—that Zoe Saldana will be incompetent as the actress to portray Nina Simone because of her skin complexion.  While understandable that it would be difficult to picture thin, young and straight-haired Saldana portraying the tall, middle-aged, and kinky-haired Nina Simone in her natural state and without appropriate costuming, makeup, etc., her skin complexion has nothing to do with how well she would do in the role. For, if it were true that actors can only portray people who are the same complexion,  then we would not have enjoyed such award-winning performances by Denzel Washington as the late lighter- skinned Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Don Cheadle as the late lighter-skinned Petey Greene in the movie Talk to Me, Diana Ross as the late lighter-skinned Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, or Jeffery Wright as the late darker-skinned Martin Luther King, Jr. in Boycott or darker-skinned painter Basquiat in the movie Basquiat. To dilute Nina Simone’s legacy to one where it’s claimed she was important only because she was dark-skinned or that she can only be portrayed by someone who is the same skin complexion  is inaccurate and insulting to who she was. Neither in Nina Simone’s autobiography You Put a Spell On Me nor in any interviews does she ever identify her experience as a Black woman being impacted by her complexion in comparison to other Black people. Nina Simone regarded the United States as being discriminatory to all Black people and her experiences that were marked with racism doled out by white people were due to her race, not darker hue as compared to other Blacks.

Power, Poise and Humor

While skin complexion is not what should be the determining factor of who plays Nina Simone, the ability to convey Nina’s intense, always poised, typically playful and often humorous image is important. Also, having someone who can sing and play the piano like Nina Simone would be ideal. Nina Simone’s classical training was the foundation of who she was as a musician and emphasis should be on either finding someone qualified to actually depict this talent or at least have the wherewithal to fake it effectively. When Jamie Foxx portrayed the legendary Ray Charles in the star’s biopic, his piano playing ability coupled with his incredible acting ability made it very hard to remember that Foxx was an actor and not really Ray Charles.

But, above all, it is crucial that the movie focuses on Nina Simone’s role as an activist and the impact her music had on her audience. A lazy approach to depicting the dimension of who Nina Simone was would be the greatest injustice of all to who she was a public figure and would be more insulting to her legacy than any choice to cast someone who may not be the same skin complexion as the late diva.

Nina Simone’s daughter says it best when she writes, “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.”

-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is an award-winning playwright. Her theatrical piece “In Her Words” highlights the lives of Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone. Learn more about it here: http://www.theyliveon.wordpress.com.

 

 

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