*Special Note: Nothing is wrong with you. Please do not allow Hollywood’s definition of beauty to define what you truly are. Own your kinky hair, your dark skin, your wide nose, your luscious lips, and your curvy hips! No surgery or bleaching will ever be necessary.*
No one wants to acknowledge his or her privilege. Not men. Not whites. Not wealthy individuals. Not educated folk. Not heterosexuals. And most recently, not Zoe Saldana.
It is very difficult to have someone understand his or her undeserved privilege, but it is time that Saldana unpacked her invisible knapsack within the Black community.
The controversy surrounding Zoe Saldana has been a difficult one to read. Colorism in the Black community has been a problem for many years. I have sat quiet on the topic regarding Saldana being cast to play the legendary, Nina Simone; however, per usual, I must add my two cents because as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
While I do not think Zoe Saldana is a bad actress, she certainly should not have been cast to play Nina Simone. Not now and not ever. Nina Simone was a beautiful, curvy, dark-skinned Black woman with a rich voice. I remember first hearing Nina Simone when I was younger. Immediately, I fell in love from the first note to the last as I embraced her singing of pain, happiness, and even heartache. For much of her life, she experienced trials because of her darker skin complexion.
Zoe Saldana is a lighter-skinned, Afro-Latino woman. Saldana has probably never experienced the same resentment for her complexion as Nina Simone has. This is not Saldana’s “fault,” but the failure to recognize it, is. This is a major problem with Saldana being cast as Nina Simone. Even if Saldana was the greatest actress on earth, what is Hollywood attempting to portray by casting a lighter-skinned woman to play Nina Simone?
I must say, however, this issue is much bigger than Zoe Saldana . . . and must be addressed without “Trayvon Martin’ing” Saldana.
Let me explain further.
When Trayvon Martin was tragically taken away from us by self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, people seemed to speak of racial profiling, violence against Blacks, and selective prosecution as isolated events when, in fact, they were systematic and continuous occurrences. Similarly, Hollywood’s failure to cast a dark-skinned Black woman, and instead cast Saldana, is not only disrespectful, it is not an isolated event, and simply another example of erasing ‘darkness.’
This issue is much bigger than Saldana; it is about displaying a true biopic of the life of Nina Simone. This is about Hollywood’s failure to cast dark-skinned Black women to play a dark-skinned Black woman.
You know who should play Nina Simone? Someone who does not have to paint her face darker to become a dark-skinned woman. Someone who has experienced trials because of her skin complexion by mainstream society, and can embody that into making an amazing film. Someone who has heard society say, “you are pretty for a dark-skinned girl” and understands that, by default, dark must not be pretty. Someone who . . . looks like Nina Simone, unless Hollywood is attempting to argue that dark-skinned Black women do not exist, which of course, is an entirely different conversation.
The other day, I made the statement that “lighter-skinned Blacks receive a ‘privilege’ for being lighter-skinned.” When I used the word, “privilege,” to describe the treatment lighter-skinned Blacks received by mainstream society (and even by Blacks), I received some push back, though I am still unsure why. Privilege is, in essence, a preferential treatment that is not earned. This is not about whether Saldana has denied her blackness and whether she has always recognized the black part of her heritage. This is about our society valuing things that are closer to European features and devaluing blackness, but more specifically, dark-skinned blackness. The only way we can value dark-skinned blackness is by calling out the erasure of it by society and by Hollywood.
There are many dark-skinned actresses that could have been cast as Nina Simone, lest’ not forget that Simone was devalued because of her dark complexion (in this casting, that should have mattered — a lot). As a young Nina Simone, I can easily imagine Adepero Oduye from Pariah, and as an older Nina Simone, the directors could have cast Viola Davis — both of who are amazing actresses and can portray the triumphs and struggles of the icon.
My question is: what is the difference from this privilege than others? Why is it easy to understand white and male privilege, but not privileges within communities? Most people who receive privilege pretend not to recognize it as such. Being Black is not immunity from privilege; lighter-skinned Blacks should also realize this to be the case. Certainly, this is not to say that light-skinned people do not experience racism; they do. My point is that many receive preferential treatment for having more European features as if something is wrong with African features. Do not convince me that you have never heard someone say they want a “redbone” or someone who is “light-skinned, with green eyes, and long hair.”
Apparently, Saldana never received the memo of her privilege in-and-outside of Hollywood. In September, Saldana re-tweeted someone referring to her negative treatment as “reverse racism” in the Black community. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but racism does not go in reverse. It has been in drive for many years, and this erasure of dark-skinned Blackness is another example. “Reverse racism” is an overused statement by those who have the luxury of benefiting from privilege and entitlement. Reverse racism is fictional and has never existed. Since Saldana is playing Nina Simone, I am surprised she would ever make a statement about her experiencing “reverse racism.”
To make matters worse, Saldana has been extremely defensive of the criticism. I heard someone say “Saldana is being picked on.”
Let us be clear – this is not a schoolyard bully looking for a problem; this is about defending the legacy of Nina Simone and for dark-skinned women in Hollywood. By not even attempting to understand the colorism complex in the Black community, and in Hollywood, Saldana will continue experiencing backlash for accepting this role. I will not even discuss the irony of a minority doing “Blackface” to play the role of a dark-skinned Black woman.
Calling out this type of privilege does not mean that a person is valued less. It simply means that someone must value us as dark-skinned individuals because we recognize that if we will not, no one will — especially not Hollywood.
I, for one, do not think Saldana should be the person to play such an icon whose music was highly influential in the fight for equality in our country. When dark-skinned women cannot even be cast as dark-skinned women, we have a huge problem in Hollywood and in our country. It should be addressed.
Recently, I read an article that stated, “Zoe Saldana is black ‘enough'” to play Nina Simone. They went on to say that “the quality of her acting” was all that mattered. If all that matters is the quality of Zoe Saldana’s acting, then let Meryl Streep play Harriet Tubman. Let Tom Cruise play Frederick Douglass. Let Nicole Kidman play Maya Angelou. While we are at it, let us pretend that racism and colorism has nothing to do with casting in Hollywood.
There must be a standard and lines must be drawn. If Hollywood does not care to do it, then we can take out our permanent marker and draw one for them.
While I do not think Saldana is 100% to blame, she should have exercised some artist integrity to decide to turn down the role. I reserve most of my blame for the continued erasure of dark-skinned Black America, especially in regards to this film, for Cynthia Mort and Jeremy Lovine for casting Saldana. However, by happily accepting this role, not only has Saldana failed to exercise artist integrity, she has also failed to realize the perpetuation of the racial-hierarchy that Hollywood has promoted, and that she has helped to promote.
People do not believe that the history of Nina Simone should be chastised simply because Hollywood is afraid of casting a dark-skinned Black woman with luscious lips and curvy hips. People care about the image of a woman with kinky and natural hair receiving recognition. People care about Nina Simone. This is about her more than it is about Saldana.
Nina Simone’s life. Her legacy. Her Blackness. Her dark-skinned blackness . . . matters!