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Ta-Nehisi Coates On The Fight Over 'Nina Simone's Face'

This still is from the first trailer for <em>Nina, </em>starring Zoe Saldana as singer Nina Simone. This image of Saldana in dark makeup and with a prosthetic nose helped reignite a controversy over skin color and casting.
Nina (2016) Trailer, IMDb
This still is from the first trailer for Nina, starring Zoe Saldana as singer Nina Simone. This image of Saldana in dark makeup and with a prosthetic nose helped reignite a controversy over skin color and casting.

Lots of people are fuming about Nina, an upcoming biopic about legendary singer Nina Simone. According to its critics, the filmmakers butcher important parts of Simone's biography (in part, by attributing much of her success to the men in her life), but that their larger sin was casting actress Zoe Saldana, who plays the lead role with the help of skin-darkening makeup and a prosthetic nose.

Many argue that casting the lighter skinned Afro-Latina actress, rather than someone who better resembled Simone, was an attempt to make the film more marketable instead of staying true to the singer and the life that inspired her art. The makeup and prosthetic nose, they also charge, were sloppy and poorly executed. In one of the more gentle critiques, singer India.Arie called the casting move "tone deaf." Others went with "disrespectful," "deplorable," and "embarrassing."

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

Buzzfeed rounded up some of the Twitter reactions to the film's trailer. Jezebel highlighted the overwhelmingly white team behind the production. Time magazine talked to Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, about the movie's narrative flaws, and the Guardian chronicled some of the offensive backlash to people's complaints about the film. Vox also voxsplained the whole controversy, from pre-production to the release of the first trailer.

But more than any other, Ta-Nehisi Coates' recently published essay seems to capture the full emotional depth of all this frustration. He suggests this wasn't just another questionable casting choice involving a person of color in a long line of such casting choices. To explain, Coates gets personal:

"When I was kid, I knew what the worst parts of me were—my hair and my mouth. My hair was nappy. My lips were big. Nearly every kid around me knew something similar of themselves because nearly every one of us had some sort of physical defect—dark skin, nappy hair, broad nose, full lips—that opened us up to ridicule from one another. That each of these "defects" were representative of all the Africa that ran through us was never lost on anyone. "Africa" was an insult—African bush-boogie, African bootie-scratcher etc. Ethiopian famine jokes were all the rage back then...

...[Nina] Simone was in possession of nearly every feature that we denigrated as children. And yet somehow she willed herself into a goddess."

Coates goes on to explain how Simone's appearance, as well as her music, helped him view his childhood musings on race in a larger context:

"Simone is something more than a female Bob Marley. It is not simply the voice: It is the world that made that voice, all the hurt and pain of denigration, forged into something otherworldly. That voice, inevitably, calls us to look at Nina Simone's face, and for a brief moment, understand that the hate we felt, that the mockery we dispensed, was unnatural, was the fruit of conjurations and the shadow of plunder. We look at Nina Simone's face and the lie is exposed and we are shamed. We look at Nina Simone's face and a terrible truth comes into view—there was nothing wrong with her. But there is something deeply wrong with us."

Finally, Coates takes us through what all of this means, both for the potential audience and Nina's creators:

"It's here that the term 'appropriation' bears some usage. We're not talking about someone inspired by the deeper lessons of Simone's life and her music. We are talking about people who think it's fine to profit off her music while heedlessly contributing to the kind of pain that brought that music into being. To acknowledge that pain, to consider it in casting, would be inconvenient—as anti-racist action always is. It would mean giving an opportunity to someone who's actively experienced the kind of pain that plagued Simone. That would doubtlessly mean a diminished chance at garnering funds for such a film. And that, in turn, would court years of delays and the possibility of the film never coming into being. That would be unfortunate—but less so for Nina Simone than for the agents who feel themselves entitled to profit her story."

The whole piece is worth reading and thinking about. You can check it out over at The Atlantic.

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

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
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