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AUGUST 21, 2012 2:40PM

Saldana as Simone and the Aesthetics of Sexuality

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 Saldana as Simone in the Aesthetics of Beauty

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone? Why not? Mary J Blige was slated for the role but for unknown reasons, is no longer a part of this production. The noise in the blogosphere around this controversy is akin to a hive of agitated hornets. I will admit that I was flabbergasted too but then remembered how well Diana Ross portrayed Billie Holiday despite the initial reaction she faced. Still, this is not about Saldana’s talent as a singer or actress. The casting itself raises questions about beauty and sexuality. As the details about this film project have emerged, I can see why she was chosen over so many actors such as Pariah’s Adepero Oduye who is closer to the late Simone’s phenotype.


 From what I have been able to gather from various search engines on this project, the unauthorized biography does not focus on the child prodigy Simone. It also does not focus on the real woman who was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties nor even the real woman whose compositions, “Four Women” and Mississippi Goddam!” were her signature songs because of their resonance with the Black experience.  Instead, the film is based on a fictionalized romantic relationship between the late musician and her assistant Clifton Henderson from the autobiography “I Put a Spell On You.”  

Had the film project focused on a Civil Rights activist, a composer, and a child prodigy, then an actress such as Adepero Oduye may have been chosen for this part. Since Simone is being sexualized in this film, Saldana will be the object of affection because African American women who look like Simone do not play love interest in most forms of visual media whether it is mainstream films, television, or the videos of rap stars. Simone was the epitome of “Black is Beautiful” for a short period of time but currently very few believe it and this includes and is especially true of African Americans.  

Some will say that this is due to mainstream media’s focus on African American women whose looks are more biracial.  Olympic competitor Lolo Jones who did not place in track during the 2012 Olympics in London leads every American track athlete in magazine covers despite athletes such as Sanya Richards-Ross’s winning a gold medal for the 400mm.  

On television, shows such as “The Unit’s” Regina Taylor or “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Chandra Wilson whose characters are married do not in fact engage in sticky, sweaty sex scenes while their costars have been copulating throughout each series. It seems to suggest that the American audience does not want to see actresses who do not conform to People Magazine  type beauty standards entangled with their onscreen husbands and lovers.  

In most music videos produced or starring African American males , the women who receive the attention from the male protagonist resemble Halle Berry more than Viola Davis. In fact, one famous dark-skinned rapper has been rumored to say that he would never marry a dark-skinned woman despite fathering a dark-skinned child.


In the trailer for the documentary Dark Girls directed by Bill Duke & d. Channsin Berry , one of the interviewees admits that he does not want a dark-skinned girl because she would look “funny” beside him (he was light brown).  There are exceptions to everything that I have written but the rule seems a lot more ubiquitous.  

Production companies fund films in hopes of profiting which complicates this controversy because Saldana is also more well-known especially to a younger audience than most darker-hued actresses whose looks and acting chops may be better suited for the part. She does not need to sing i.e. (Angela Bassett lip syncing Tina Turner). In fact, Saldana’s familiarity could revive the music of a once celebrated social icon though it would be at the risk of erasing what was most significant about her.  

It appears that Hollywood along with its U.S. audience whether African American or not cannot envision a woman whose features are not fine and whose skin resembles sable in a romantic, sexualized role. Of the two camps, only one has the financial backing to produce a film that will conflate history as aesthetics thus further complicating what future generations will think they know about Nina Simone.  

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I apologize for the funky font but it's been too labor/time intensive for me to fix. I wanted to publish this before it became irrelevant.
Go figure. I think Viola Davis is stunningly beautiful.

Hollywood has a long and sordid tradition of switching out actresses to conform to whatever needs it has at the moment. You didn't mention this, but Zoe Saldana is Latina, which further complicates the issue. Finally! A Latina lands a meaty role only to steal it from qualified black actresses. Guess that's progress, huh? Not.

If it's any consolation, several biopics have been made in which a character who was Latina in real life was replaced with an Anglo/white/Caucasian woman. Case in point, "A Beautiful Mind." The professor's wife in real life was Latina, so why did director Ron Howard choose Jennifer Connelly to play the role? A Latina actress would have lent so much more credibility to the story. As it turns out, real life is always much more interesting and multidimensional than anything Hollywood produces. Those entrenched in the film industry seem more interested in reflecting back their own images into the world than capturing the truth of humanity.

I've noticed Indian (from India) actresses portraying Latinas in films and on television. It's almost like Hollywood is saying, "One brown woman is as good as the next." And when Hollywood does choose a Latina or black woman to play a particular role, it's mostly as a stereotype (i.e. Latina maids and nannies all over the place. Seems like screenwriters don't see beyond their gardens in L.A.)

Your blog post brought back for me the 1959 film "Imitation of Life." Ever see that one? It's a heartbreaker.

By the way, it's Zoe Saldaña, and not "Saldana." Just keeping it real.
My favorite Nina Simone song is Forbidden Fruit. I believe she became disillunioned wth the United States and moved to France.
I also think that Viola Davis is beautiful also but it's always a question of which actresses are chosen to play in romantic/sexualized roles which does not detract from her beauty.

I don't know that Saldana's cultural background complicates the issue; it is her looks that I focused on. Irene Cara, another Afro-Latina woman portrayed Sparkle in the original production in the seventies as well as in other films featuring African American stories.

It is difficult for actors of color in general to work in Hollywood. You mentioned the film Imitation of Life. That film was first produced in 1934 and its protagonist was actress Fredi Washington who was a black woman who looked white. She did very few films because she was considered "not the right type" for maid parts and she was too white looking to play a romantic lead with black actors. Her filmography is sparse as a result so most have not heard of her.

Lastly, I did not add the accent mark over the "n" in Saldana's name as this has been seldom seen in most written media about the actress. It would be interesting to see more written about Afro-Latinos in general because few Americans know about this population and the history of how they came to the diaspora.
Excellent piece and a subject I've contemplated at length over the years. I believe there is also a biopic about Harriet Tubman in the works which features an actress with bi-racial features as well. I agree that while it's a net positive to have Simone's story, even fictionalized, told to give her music and persona more exposure. As Obama is fond of saying, we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but if then again, it only perpetuates the prevalence and preference of that particular standard of beauty. If we are ever to change things, we must start somewhere. It audiences don't want to see dark-skinned, kinky -haired women canoodling on screen, it's only because they're not used to it. Someone has to put it out there again and again until everyone learns to appreciate that particular flavor of beauty. And by the way, Viola Davis is a goddess, and I LOVE that she wore a short natural to the Academy awards. That was a huge statement of support the erstwhile "black is beautiful" movement.
Great post. What a short-coming that the film will only focus on Simone's romantic life. So much more to the woman than that. I have been a huge fan of hers since I was in my 20's.

I also think Viola Davis, Regina Taylor, and Chandra Wilson all are beautiful. It has seemed more "acceptable" for the male actors to be less biracial looking, but I think even that is changing. Can you imagine a world without Sidney Poitier or Richard Roundtree?
After reading your post I did a google search for images of Nina Simone and after looking at dozens of photographs taken at various points throughout her long life I couldn't find a single image where she was anything but beautiful,proud and fierce... extraordinary woman with an extraordinary talent.
I had not thought about the sexual aspect of the movie, in fact I wasn't aware of it. I had thought about using Zoe Saldana rather than Anokie Nonie Rose (a singer) and closer to type for the part. We Black women have been marginalized and you're right often it is our own people like Lil Wayne doing the most damage. But it is our lack of presence in the mainstream media and the fact that we don't have the movie to distribute our product that dooms us. It is also what has become an incessant need to immulate White people and to please their asthetic that has caused Beyonce to appear near White on her latest album cover. Why are weaves and lace fronts more popular than afros and dreads? Both styles have proven to yield many beautiful results. I would also like to state that I don't consider finer features the domain of White people either, anyone who knows a Somalian or Ethiopian knows they have very fine features. And a final thought is there are a number of people like Spielberg who have adopted Black children but rarely populate their movies with Black people. How can we expect people who have Black people in their homes, but who can't see them in their films to do any better?
Correction that should be the money to distribute.
Correction that should be the money to distribute.