“If I never make another film, look at the film I made.” – Sam Greenlee
Last week, the Nina Simone biopic debuted at Cannes. I was waiting for reviews to come out before writing this but I couldn’t find any. Apparently it was only screened for distribution companies interested in buying the film – this is a telling tale.
Viola Davis, Kimberly Elise, India Arie (who released a statement) and Mary J Blige are just a few actresses that many feel were more fitting to play the High Priestess of Soul. Since popular votes don’t guarantee selection, the outcome is already a finished product starring Zoe Saldana.
I like Zoe as an actress and as a person that I don’t know. I admire her hutzpah as she defends her right to embody Ms. Simone. However, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I really wish Zoe would have used her white privilege and Hollywood status to become a producer and give the role to someone who gets less opportunity due to their African facial features. When I say white privilege I’m talking about the controlled definition of beauty and those who benefit. I look at Zoe and often say “Goddamn, she’s fine!” I look at Zoe as Nina and I say “Ain’t that a bitch!” Go figure.
Before I can recall listening to any of Nina Simone’s music I remember seeing her face. I had a childish fixation because she looked just like my mother. If people thought Nina was beautiful then they thought mom was beautiful and one could extend the deduction of esteem by me being born.
The most pronounced hereditary feature that my mother and Nina share is the nose. Zoe knows Nina’s nose very well. I wonder what Zoe felt inside every time she sat down and watched the make-up artist apply a prosthetic nose and darken her skin. Please take a moment to think about that process. When Zoe as Nina looks in the mirror she knows is promoting mythology. Say what you want about The Great Sphinx’s missing nose but the full lips still remain after all these centuries. This damn nose always gets in the way of European theory. It’s a prevalent relic in every ancient civilization, on every continent; still history finds a way to airbrush evidence while contradicting itself with monikers like “Aborigeni.” It’s too big to sweep under the rug so it gets locked away in the tombs of museums. One of the many cool things about Kara Walker’s modern art sphinx is that she presents an all-white sculpture with stereotypical black female features. She states:
“The whole reason for refining sugar is to make it white. Even the idea of becoming “refined” seems to dovetail with the Western way of dealing with the world.”
When I look at Nina Simone, I see a messenger with a wide nose and full lips. When I look at Zoe as Nina I see someone in a cloak walking a windy road to an awkward redemption. Zoe should be leery of anyone telling her that the black community is just over-reacting (as always) because that is a person is someone who does not love Nina. When fulfilling her contractual obligation of promotion, she should use the moment to apologize so we can at least empathize with her being a puppet. The director Cynthia Mort doesn’t have the power of celebrity to protect her but even she made a bold move of detachment.
This brings us to the supreme capitalists who hide behind corporate curtains and only show face at legal depositions. Some would say they robbed Nina’s grave, re-branded the artifacts with plans to sell and will settle all lawsuits after they count their money. Look at the video, one of them might’ve been in the audience clapping at her performance just like one of the engineers of this high school prank might go on to make Drake’s biopic. I don’t give a fuck how much you love Nina’s music, if you dishonor her integrity it means you hear her sound and not her voice and/or that you love her but you muthafuckers never loved us, remember. It means you want soul to be packaged in coffee bean blonde even though she told you black is the color of her true love’s hair. It means you don’t think Nina’s beautiful and only God knows what you think of my mother since she can’t sing. Now I hope you see why so many people might take this casting so personal.
Nina was not here to entertain us with dance and radio formatted songs. Her lyrics, her staging, her expressions, her espresso complexion adding another tone to the ebony and ivory, her ornaments, her natural follicles underneath the crowns adorned and the cigarette smoke she blew out her oval lips and ancient nostrils were all elements of her protest artistry.
If Nina is about self-love then Zoe as Nina is about self-hate. If self-hate ain’t subliminal, then why would Floyd Mayweather feel posting a picture of his ex-fiancé before her nose job was going to shame her? Yeah, I got better examples than Shantel Jackson but I just felt like sprinkling some recent rachetness. The point is: Zoe’s nose was altered and now Nina’s nose is altered. Zoe ain’t wearing make-up, she’s wearing black face and we’ve been bamboozled once again – since I’m writing this on May 19th I might as well say Happy Birthday to Malcolm X.
My uncle was friends with Nina and Malcolm. He wrote the first screenplay about Malcolm’s life and guess what was the main dispute with the movie studio? Choosing the actor to play Malcolm. At the time, James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams were on the short list but one particular name made my uncle cringe in angered disbelief. There was a very real rumor that the studio wanted Malcolm X to be played by Charlton Heston. Uncle Jimmy wasn’t going to take the chance of having the studio whitewash his script and eclipse “our shining black prince” with a white man in lackluster make-up, so he said Hell to the No! Twenty years passed before Spike Lee managed to do right by the story but he too faced a fair share of studio battles. Time is often the first expense of integrity. Nina Simone, James Baldwin and Malcolm X are all dead but not gone. In the ongoing war of legacy versus exploitation, one spends a sacrificial lifetime to create a self-portrait with uncompromising colors only to have others betray your work with crayons. Hollywood Goddamn!
T. Better Baldwin is an Ethical Lobbyist and Creative Mercenary who was born, raised and resides in New York City. He also lives here.