Conflicted Emotions: My Take on Zoe, Nina Simone, and the Whole Movie Mess

Very relevant to the conversation being fostered here at 50 SHADES OF BLACK is the ongoing controversy around the casting of Zoe Saldana to portray the towering figure of Nina Simone in an upcoming film biopic.  I was reminded of the controversy again this morning on the ride to work when NPR covered the story.  I've strayed away from highlighting this conversation on this blog for a number of reasons.  My primary reason is because it has been covered in so many other places.  The second reason is because I could not get a firm read of my OWN emotional responses to the story.

In a lot of ways I'm conflicted.  I love me some Zoe.  The more I read about her, the more I like her.  The more I understand (both personally and through the stories shared on this site) the struggles for identity faced by people of multi racial heritage, the more sensitive I am to what she may be experiencing in reading the critiques of her being cast.  In some ways, it may not be different than the mixed messages she's gotten her whole life:

"You aren't black enough.  You're too black to be cast as Latina.  You're very pretty for a black woman.  You look exotic.  Wait...what are you anyway?"

I'm trying to imagine being a Hollywood actress...always hoping and praying for your next big role...always doubting your own abilities...always fearing being typecast...always wanting to land a role that might be worthy of some type of award...always fearing having to settle for guest appearances in nighttime TV shows like CSI Miami...and then your phone rings:

Hi this is __________ and you are being considered for a role playing one of the most enigmatic, pioneering, contemporary(ily) relevant artist of a previous generation in what may be the most anticipated films of the year.  Will you come to ________ studios for a meeting?

What do you say?  "No Thanks.  I'm too light skinned."

Some people would say this is exactly what she should have said.

BUT...then I pause and realize that maybe this controversy isn't or shouldn't be really a conversation about Zoe at all.  Maybe it is really about preserving the sacredness Nina Simone.  I forgive myself (and hope that Zoe forgives me) for making it about Zoe and putting all of the pressure on her.  What about the casting directors, the film's director.  What made them think that Zoe Saldana was the right person to play Nina Simone of all people.  Who approached who first?  What about the entire nature of the film industry and all its mess in general?  What about the general ethos of the viewing audience that seems to blindly accept whatever is placed in front of us as standards of beauty and sexuality.

I then think about who was originally cast to play our beloved Nina.  Would Mary J have been able to pull it off had she not declined the role?  Could she have tapped into the character in such a way that she could have convincingly pulled off the extreme highs and low lows of a woman who some have claimed was bi-polar?  Could she have made me feel as lost in the turbulence of life and made me feel as if I were ACTUALLY watching the woman being portrayed as Diana Ross did in Lady Sings the Blues?  Maybe you need an A-List actor (dare I say like Zoe) to pull off something like this.

Mary's sometimes robotic musical performances make me wonder.  Skin tone and acting aside, forgive me, but I can't seem to shake the Crispy Chicken controversy with Mary J Blige.  I'm not sure if I want that song playing in the back of my mind the entire movie. I'm just saying.


I'm also emotionally torn with how I see the use of makeup in Hollywood and how it is

being used in this case.  On the one hand I get it.  We all laughed...the first time...when Eddie got dressed up as the different characters in Coming To America.  I still say "He beat Joe Louis' ass" to this day in my 'old light skinned black man or New York Jewish white man who hangs out at black barber shops' voice.  There wasn't really a controversy about the fact that Eddie Murphy used make up to alter his image so drastically.  I remember my mouth dropping to the floor when I realized that was even him in the first place.  Brilliant.

Should I feel different about this?  Are the marvels of makeup not part of what we call Hollywood Magic?  If the make up artist who made Brad Pitt look 183 years old in The Curious Life of Benjamin Button could make another another woman look like Nina Simone shouldn't that be as Oscar worthy?  Or is this another case of the okie-doke?  I'm reminded of Spike Lee's Bamboozled, and I just can't shake it.  Zoe painted black and given a big nose just doesn't feel right.

But is that fair?  Is this reminiscent of a minstrel show or is it what we pay to go see at any other movie where we temporarily suspend our disbelief and feel good about being duped.  After all, Zoe wasn't naturally born blue either, but she killed that role as Neyteri and we made Avatar the highest grossing film of all time.

-Carlton Mackey  (creator of 50 SHADES OF BLACK)

What are your thoughts?  Please join the conversation.