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Saldana As Simone Resurfaces A Debate Beyond Black And White

In this composite image, a comparison has been made between Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana.
David Redfern/Frazer Harrison
Redferns/Getty Images for Relativity Media
In this composite image, a comparison has been made between Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana.

Last week it was all about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. That was about racism.

This week, social media erupted over something that has long been an issue within the black community. Colorism — the idea that your skin tone and not only your race determines your opportunities.

Actress Zoe Saldana faced a firestorm over her portrayal of music and civil rights icon Nina Simone.

Simone's identity and work is closely linked to the fact that she was a powerful black woman with dark skin and African features. In one of her diary entries, she wrote, "I'm the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise." But she was defiantly proud of her appearance and she fought to change perceptions of what was beautiful.

Her supporters have called the casting of Zoe Saldana as Simone an insult to her struggle and the most recent example of Hollywood's attempt to sideline women with dark skin.

Zoe Saldana is lighter-skinned. Her parents are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and those island nations are home to a melting pot of races. Many are a mix of black — Afro descendants who came from slaves forcibly transported to work the land — and white — from the Europeans who ruled over them. There is also the indigenous heritage as well.

She is Latina but she self identifies as black, and it's important to note the two things are actually not mutually exclusive.

In any case, the problem to the film's detractors is her appearance was dramatically changed to play Simone. She was given a prosthetic nose. And more controversially, they basically put her in black face, darkening her so she would resemble Simone more closely.

The founder of BET, who is distributing the film, defended the casting, saying that "the most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color or ethnicity or physical likeness."

That is being deemed a white-wash by many African-Americans.

It's a debate about skin tone, history, and authenticity.

In short, its a more complicated, subtle debate that is no longer just black or white.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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