March 6, 2016

Saldana is Not the Problem!

“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously," said Lisa Simone Kelly, the only child of Nina Simone, in a Time interview. Let's be clear, it is a travesty that Saldana is being attacked at all.

Zoe Saldana had as much creative control over the so-called biopic 'Nina' as the director Cynthia Mort, who has filed suit against Ealing Studios Enterprises for excluding her from important decision-making processes that were part of their studio-director contractual agreement.

It is naive to believe that an actress signed to a project is routinely granted creative control over make-up, wardrobe, script, or any other aspects of making the film. Saldana was hired to play Nina Simone. I.e., she was an employee, not the boss. Those who come for her are engaged in misdirected indictment.

Valid arguments have been made that whether or not Saldana was the right choice to portray Simone should be based on her performance rather than the hue of her black skin. Absolutely! Actors do not have to be physical carbon copies of the real life people they portray. Angela Bassett bears little resemblance to Tina Turner but she was hella convincing in that role. Eamonn Walker could not be mistaken for Howlin' Wolf but was very persuasive as the blues icon.

Angela and Eamonn possessed that
je ne sais quoi, which permitted them to convince us, the audience, that they were those characters. It is the casting director's job to identify such inarticulatable traits in an actor's ability to deliver a specific character. Whether the casting director did their job or not will be revealed. And yes, I just shamelessly coined "inarticulatable."

I will not be watching 'Nina' in the studios nor via any of the streaming services to which I subscribe. The trailer, which I refuse to include here, promises that the movie is a wholesale reduction of Simone on so many levels.

The trailer's focus on Simone's struggle with mental illness toward the end of her career characterizes her artistry and her commitment to black power, civil rights--human rights--as the efforts of a madwoman. This functions to discredit her as the powerful revolutionary she was and still is--uncompromising and not for sale.

Everything about the studio's production decisions as revealed through the trailer, including Saldana in blackface, indicates that 'Nina' is a effort to reduce Simone to a caricature, not to be taken seriously by anyone unfamiliar with her musicianship, vocal artistry, and relentless activism. And it beacons those of us unacquainted with her psychological challenges to second guess our relationship with her activism. Additionally, friends, 'Nina' is a dangerous piece of "art" for our young who have yet to learn about the singer-songwriter, social justice advocate Nina Simone. 

I feel compelled as a direct beneficiary of Simone's work and as a carrier of culture, a role women have filled for centuries, to exercise a particular kind of stewardship to ensure the perpetuation of a pristine legacy where Simone is concerned. Nina Simone earned this trust in a public stewardship through tears and years of advocating and sacrificing for the cause of black folk. Sacrifices that translated into the real terms of lost gigs, alienation by the music industry, and I contend, mental illness as a byproduct of these tremendous stresses played out on a world stage.

We owe allegiance to and can support the grand legacy of the phenomenal Nina Simone by saying no to 'Nina.'

And we can do this without throwing Zoe Saldana under the colorism bus!

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