Zoe Saldana’s Nina Simone Trailer Reignites Light-Washing Controversy

Critics say the Afro-Latina actor is too pale to play the High Priestess of Soul.
Mar 2, 2016
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Zoe Saldana has transformed herself to play roles such as the blue-skinned character Neytiri in Avatar and the green-hued Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. But images released Wednesday of her cosmetic transformation into Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic has left some fans of the late singer disappointed and angry.

A new official poster and trailer for the movie shows Saldana wearing a prosthetic nose and dark face makeup, reigniting the controversy surrounding the decision to cast Saldana as the titular character in Nina. Saldana has faced criticism since news surfaced in 2012 that she would replace Mary J. Blige—who had to drop out owing to scheduling conflicts—to play the High Priestess of Soul. Saldana addressed the situation in 2013, telling Allure, "It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it, I will honor and respect my black community because that’s who I am.” 

Saldana, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, has alternated between saying that people of color don’t exist and identifying as a black and Latina woman. Regardless of how Saldana identifies, many believe the role should have gone to an African American woman—or at least a woman with a darker skin tone and features that more closely resembled Simone's.

Among the critics is the late singer's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, an executive producer of the 2015 Netflix documentary Whatever Happened, Miss Simone? “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” Simone Kelly told The New York Times in 2012. “Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.” Simone Kelly said she would have preferred an actor like Viola Davis to play her mother, or Whoopi Goldberg, whom Simone chose to play herself when a project was in the works in the 1990s. Social media users also had casting suggestions, such as singer Lauryn Hill or Saturday Night Live actor Leslie Jones.

People of color often face discrimination based on their complexion, known as colorism, in which light-skinned people of color are more likely to be hired or paid better than darker-skinned people. Hollywood has long favored actors of lighter color, even when the role calls for a darker actor. Biracial actor Thandie Newton came under fire in 2012 when she was cast to play a Nigerian woman in the adaption of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Critics also cried foul when Jacqueline Fleming, also biracial, was cast to play Harriet Tubman in Tim Burton’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Some social media users called Saldana’s role an example of Hollywood "light-washing" acting roles, which perpetuates the idea that light-skinned women of color are more desirable—or can make a film more profitable—than darker women of color.

Colorism aside, some feel that the most egregious part about casting Saldana is that Simone’s appearance was an important part of her identity—songs like "Four Women" expressed pride in her "black skin" and "woolly hair"—and also fueled her involvement in the civil rights movement.

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