The controversy centers around lead actress Zoe Saldana. Best known for roles in blockbuster movies such as Avatar and Guardians of The Galaxy, the casting of Saldana has angered many because of her ethnicity including Simone’s estate which menacingly tweeted, “Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life,” after Saldana posted a picture of herself as Simone on her Instagram account.
Saldana, who was born and raised in New Jersey, has a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother. In the wake of the lack of African-American nominees at the recent Academy Awards there is anger as to why a black actress wasn’t cast instead and Saldana is now bearing the brunt of it. There is further anger because the trailer features Saldana in so-called “blackface”. Writing in The Independent, Kuba Shand-Baptiste claims the casting of Saldana “is nothing short of criminal.” Shand-Baptiste complains that Saldana’s skin isn’t black enough.
If that wasn’t enoughThe Root lists 11 African-American women who could play Simone “without blackface.The list includes the like of Oscar winners Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o as well as musicians Lauryn Hill and India.Arie.
While I don’t doubt the aforementioned women could do justice to Simone’s life and music, do we really want racial purity tests when it comes to casting actors in films? At this point, Zoe Saldana is being solely judged by the color of her skin instead of the content of her performance. From where I sit that is racism.
Now I have no doubt that some might ask, “What ‘s some white, Jewish Canadian guy with a big mustache know about Nina Simone?”
The answer is plenty. Jazz was at the center of my Dad’s old record collection. One of the crown jewels in that collection was Nina Simone’s 1971 album Here Comes The Sun. As you could imagine by the title it includes a cover of George Harrison’s Beatles masterpiece as well as Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and other hits of the era as divergent as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Mr. Bojangles” and “O-o-h Child” by The Five Stairsteps. But the cut which stands above them all is “My Way” which closes the album and became a favorite in the Goldstein household.
Although co-written by Paul Anka, it was made famous by Frank Sinatra. No disrespect intended for The Chairman of The Board, but his version pales in comparison to the energy and passion with which Simone sings this song. Simone had a very deep voice and when I first heard it, I thought it was being sung by a man. The song builds in intensity and demonstrates Simone’s genius as an arranger. I have posted a video of the song so you can judge for yourself.
Needless to say, this is a movie I would like to see. But making this movie about the color of Zoe Saldana’s skin misses the point. The point of the movie is to tell Nina Simone’s story and introduce a new generation of fans to her music. If Zoe Saldana’s interpretation of Nina Simone accomplishes these things then what’s the problem?
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