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Zoe Saldana in Nina: When #BlackGirlMagic Gets Stuck in a Box

We should be celebrating Blackness of every variety, a fact we’re too quick to forget in light of persistent whitewashing.

By Lauretta Charlton

OK, let’s talk about Nina.

Actress Zoe Saldana has been catching heat for her role as Nina Simone in the upcoming, controversial, unauthorized biopic ever since the film was announced back in 2010, but with the release of the new trailer this week that criticism went from mild annoyance to downright outrage in a matter of hours. Apparently seeing her channel Simone on screen is just going to be too much for some of us to handle. But really though, I think we should be asking ourselves why.

Yes, Saldana has a slim frame, light skin, and long hair, and yes it’s weird to see her using a bad accent, wig, prosthetic nose, and blackface to portray the iconic legend. But it’s one thing to rail against the Academy for not nominating any Black actors for an Oscar, and another to criticize a Black actor for essentially not being Black enough, or the type of Black you expect her to be.

Putting aside that time Saldana told BET “there’s no such thing as people of color,” I think the Nina blowback cuts to a deeper and more important issue in Hollywood. Unlike the #OscarSoWhite controversy, the controversy around Nina isn’t so much about latent racism as it is colorism, the prejudice against darker skin tones, how black skin still gets categorized in two basic boxes — light and dark — and how desperately we need to move beyond that binary in order to have more challenging conversations about how we see, treat, and discuss different types of Blackness, not just in Hollywood, but among ourselves.

Let’s face it, if Saldana stuck to blockbuster sci-fis like Avatar and Star Trek, she would be embraced for her #BlackGirlMagic, but she’s not getting that same recognition here because of her light skin. Much of that has to do with Hollywood’s persistent refusal to acknowledge the full spectrum of Black identity, and the limited number of roles available for Black actors in general. But this is not only a disservice to Black actors with dark skin, but also to actors like Saldana whose light skin in this case is a handicap that has more or less set her up for failure.

Of course the great irony here is that Simone was a victim of colorism while Saldana is seen to have benefitted from it. But Simone was also acutely aware of Pan-Africanism and the effects of the diaspora. She knew that when we start talking about Afro-Latina, Afro-Caribbean, African-American, and African-African, at the end of the day we all meant Black. She understood the nuances of Black identity, and also how important it is for Black people of all colors from all over the world to unite in solidarity. Her song “Four Women,” describes and praises this diversity.

Yes, light skin can represent privilege, but it can also represent self-hatred, resentment and isolation. It can mean willfully “passing,” but it can also mean, you know, like, “my ancestors were raped by white plantation owners.” When false hierarchies are established based on these interpretations it creates a painful, damaging mess. You can benefit from being a Black person with light skin, but you can also suffer from it. It’s not always a choice, and it’s unfair to assume Black people with light skin would automatically exploit it as a privilege or feel superior. It’s also unfair, I might add, to assume that the only reason why an actress like Viola Davis isn’t playing Nina Simone is because she has dark skin. Maybe she had something better to do.

What troubles me most about the Nina backlash is that it essentially reinforces the idea that Blackness only comes in two varieties, white-black, which is safe, and black-black, which is threatening. In reality, as every Black person knows, our identity is far more dynamic, beautiful, and complicated than that so throwing Saldana under the bus for being brave enough to try and act outside of those
boundaries seems a little out of line. We should be celebrating Blackness of every variety, a fact we’re too quick to forget in light of persistent whitewashing.

But the song isn’t to be young, gifted, and the right kind of Black and I think we should be figuring out ways to demand that Hollywood provide more opportunities to reflect the full spectrum of the Black identity instead of giving them excuses to put us in the two tidy boxes they’ve designed for the two types of Black they’ve chosen to recognize. Saldana doesn’t look like Nina Simone and that’s awkward, but that doesn’t mean she’s the wrong kind of Black for this role. As far as I’m concerned there is no wrong kind of Black — that is of course unless of you’re either Raven-Symoné or Stacey Dash, in which case all bets are off.

Watch a history of #BlackGirlMagic at the Academy Awards below.