Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone: A Controversy Discussing Afro-Latina’s, Antiblackness, And Colorism

Zoe Saldana played the iconic singer Nina Simone in the biopic Nina and has been receiving backlash ever since her casting was announced. According to an interview Saldana did with BET in 2013, she retweeted something said by one of her followers, claiming that the controversy over her casting was reverse racism.

Zoe did say that she first rejected the role, feeling that she was not the right person to play her. The script was sent to other actresses who may have been more appropriate, in terms of skin color and physical features, but once all of those women declined, Saldana felt that she needed to take the role out of love for Nina Simone.

Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone - A Controversy Discussing Afro-Latino's, Antiblackness And Colorism [Photo via Entertainment Weekly]One issue that has come up is her ethnicity specifically, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it. Zoe Saldana’s father has Dominican ancestry while her mother is Puerto Rican, so it is safe to say she is Afro-Latina, at the very least. There are people online arguing that the actress is “not black enough” for the role, forgetting the fact that she can claim herself as a black woman, just as much as she can claim being Latina. One should not be undervalued or erased in favor of the other. There are other Afro-Latino actresses in Hollywood many are not aware of, like Gina Torres, Judy Reyes, Tatyana Ali, and more. Zoe is free to embrace both heritages within her, so that should not be a point of contention with people.

“As a woman, it wasn’t difficult to empathize with another woman,” Zoe said, while speaking with Essence magazine. “But I needed to be very isolated. I moved out of my house for three months. I wasn’t really talking to anybody that I knew. I just needed to be all things Nina. It was so intense, and everything happened really fast.”

Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone - A Controversy Discussing Afro-Latina's, Antiblackness And Colorism Zoe Saldana at the 87th Annual Academy Awards. [Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images]It’s clear that she’s incredibly passionate about this project (by writer/director Cynthia Mort) though Nina Simone’s own daughter, Simone Kelly, does not support the project or the casting at all. So while Zoe is proud of her choice to play Nina, she did so while going against the wishes of Nina Simone’s daughter, which is quite a conundrum. As if that wasn’t problematic enough, there is the issue of Zoe Saldana having to apply makeup on her body and face to darken her skin, to physically look more like Nina Simone. Doing this to play a black woman is going to be highly problematic, even if you don’t want to label what she did as “blackface.” Not only does it bring up that issue, but it also means that the filmmakers involved were content on going with Saldana, and not going with an actress with darker skin.

“I literally run away from people that use words like ethnic,” Saldana said, discussing race. “It’s preposterous! To me there is no such thing as people of color cause in reality people aren’t white. Paper is white. People are pink.”

You may share the same sentiment as Zoe, however, if you claim to be a fan of Nina Simone and her music, you would know that her ethnicity, as well as how dark her skin was, was mentioned in her music. She never shied away from it and, in fact, wholeheartedly embraced it. The singer was dealing with racism, with her skin, her lips, her nose and her body in general – race was a very big deal in her life as well as her career. Simone Kelly would have preferred an actress like Viola Davis or Adepero Oduye to play her mother.

Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone - A Controversy Discussing Afro-Latina's, Antiblackness And Colorism American pianist and jazz singer Nina Simone reclining on the floor circa 1968. [Photo by Getty Images]Zoe Saldana playing the “Backlash Blues” singer won’t appear problematic to those who believe that race/skin-tone should not be a factor. But, that fails to acknowledge the reality that light-skinned black women often get more opportunities in Hollywood than dark-skinned women. Much like Kelly, some would suggest that this would have been a perfect opportunity to cast a dark-skinned actress for the role – particularly since we have been dealing with the controversy in Hollywood with the Academy Awards.

“An artist is colorless, genderless…,” Zoe says. But then, I can play devil’s advocate and ask, does the actor playing the role have to share the same views as the character? Not necessarily, no. Plenty of actors take on characters who they completely disagree with ideologically or morally. But even with all of that…to go against not only the daughter of Simone but the Simone estate does not seem like a wise choice. And Zoe Saldana may be brushing the haters off and feeling confident in the art itself, this still isn’t going to sit well among many black people, specifically black women. And Saldana has also made comments that suggests she doesn’t understand the colorism that exists in Hollywood when it comes to black women.

“We have a Black president right now. So why the f*** would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for Black women in Hollywood when there’s a Black president in my country?”

The actress says she didn’t grow up talking about her race/ethnicity in her household, so perhaps she doesn’t know what to say when she is being asked questions about something she rarely has ever thought about. She spent seven years of her life in the Dominican Republic when she was 10-years-old, so perhaps this had helped shape Zoe Saldana’s views on race.

Nina will be released in theaters and VOD April 22, 2016.

[Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]