Young, Gifted, and Not Black Enough: The Nina Simone Casting Controversy

| September 17, 2012

It was a rainy afternoon in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood when a thick-bespectacled hipster at the used CD store handed me a compilation called “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and said, “For the rest of your life, you will thank me for turning you on to Nina Simone.”

I went home, slipped the CD in the player, and started making dinner. No sooner had the first notes filled the apartment than I was tapping away in the kitchen while talking back to the title cover song with a “Yeah, that’s right!” I was already a fan. So evocative was her phrasing, her voice, the lyrics — my moods immediately aligned with each song. I slowed down while cutting onions and stared into my wine glass during her melancholic “Last Rose of Summer” and then shimmied around the house with the hand-clappin’ “Trouble in Mind.”

I expected nothing to compare to the next track and was prepared to fast forward straight through it; having already been familiar with Billie Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit,” I thought no other version could compare. I was wrong. I was opening the silverware drawer when I heard Simone sing those first few words and I froze: “Southern trees/ Bearing strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves/ And blood at the roots…”

I turned off the boiling water, hit replay, lit a cigarette and sat on the floor in front of the stereo and stared out at the rain. And when Simone lilted and dropped the octave at the end of the line “…and the leaves to drop” she wasn’t just singing a song, she was painting pain with her voice.

And that’s the Nina effect — no one else can do that.


Nina Simone fans are a devoted lot, so it should come as no surprise that when casting the High Priestess of Soul for an upcoming biopic, Nina, ardent acolytes expressed their displeasure. Casting any icon in a film is clearly difficult (though it’s safe to say that Lindsy Lohan portraying Elizabeth Taylor is akin to scribbling a celluloid hate letter to the violet-eyed beauty) but what many are calling “color blind casting” takes it to another level.

Simone wrapped herself in her blackness with vehement aplomb and even wrote civil rights anthems shouting her dissent against the mistreatment of African Americans from “Mississippi Goddam” to “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” And that is precisely the reason that online petitioners, bloggers and even The New York Times are reporting — and questioning — the casting of  Zoe Saldana, a beautiful, light-skinned actress of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent. And it is precisely those aforementioned physical attributes that have made Saldana the target of mobs of fans demanding another (darker-skinned) actress replace her in the upcoming film.

The casting controversy has been churning for weeks over the choice of Saldana with the consensus being that although the Avatar star is a perfectly fine actress, she is most certainly no Nina Simone. Then again, who could actually play the vitriolic virtuoso with the necessary gravitas?

It seemed like a rhetorical question until Simone’s daughter herself, Simone Kelly, recently voiced her choices for the role: Kimberly Elise and Oscar winner Viola Davis. Her mother’s choice, she said, had been Whoopi Goldberg. While Kelly states that she’s actually a fan of Saldana’s film work, she recently told The New York Times:

“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark… appearance-wise [Zoe Saldana] is not the best choice.”

Nearly 3,000 supporters on the on-line petition website have plenty to say about the casting, with most of the comments from fans focusing on the actress’s “whiteness,” and Hollywood’s “whitewashing” of history. Two commenters mentioned that based on Saldana’s appearance she would be better suited to play Lena Horne, and Stephanie Hardy of Alabama said she wanted to see someone with “chocolate skin” like her own. Meanwhile, Chicagoan BatSheva Jones snapped that “once again” Hollywood had served her “a glass of tap water” when she “ordered Cognac no chaser.”

So is it about race and the many shades of race? Yes and no.

Blogger Tiff “Coffey” J. of Coffee Rhetoric has been quoted, and misquoted, from The New York Times to the International Business Times and every Nina Simone fan site in between, on where she stands on the issue. However passionate Coffey is about the miscasting, she was incorrectly assumed to be the spark who lit the powder keg against Saldana — but that is not the case. Yesterday the blogger set the record straight:

“…In fact, a thorough read of my initial blog post, touches on the reasons why Zoe being cast as Nina Simone, [is] problematic. I never wrote that she wasn’t ‘black enough,’ I never mentioned her complexion, nor did I question her race. I said she didn’t share Nina’s phenotype. Nina Simone was a vigilant, unapologetic, mercurial, and amazing force, presented in a package that often isn’t preferred in the entertainment industry.

For those folks who insist that this inaccurate depiction of Nina’s life isn’t an example of erasure or industry light-washing of the black female aesthetic, and suggest that people are simply taking spiteful, stan-like digs at Zoe Saldana, miss the point completely. This is a systemic problem that’s been rampant in Hollywood, the film-making industry, and the overall media for far too long…”

We’re not exactly clear what a “stan-like dig” is, but we’re pretty sure we don’t want one.

Since last week, rumors have been circulating that Saldana will bend to fan pressure and decline the part, but so far there’s been no word from anyone involved with the production.

In the interim, it’s a show unto itself and one that Nina Simone would have loved to be furious about. Simone excelled at stirring the pot and delivering stings that left whelps: she loved strong men and women who were unafraid and mad as hell about something — or even anything at all, it seemed at times.

If we held a proper séance and asked Simone where she weighs in on the controversy, there’s only one thing we can all agree on: She’d be mad as hell and probably bust out a table-flip.

Meanwhile, I’m going to have myself a pig foot and a bottle of beer, and watch the show –- the casting kerfuffle, not the flick. And in between bites, and in between sips, I’m joining that petition.

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Category: Featured, Opine

Comments (3)

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  1. Stephanie Wilkins says:

    Love it, girl! And the pic of Simone on the Facebook banner cracks my ass UP!

  2. Tiff J says:

    Good to read another interesting perspective on the matter.

    As far as the “stan-like dig” phrase; it was an informal, quickly penned post. I essentially meant that most of us who’re disappointed with the casting decision aren’t rabid “stans” — (stan as in the term made popular by Eminem, to describe a rabid fan)– taking personal digs at Zoe Saldana, because we’re swept up in the heated spirit of fan-dom, as some folks are chalking the outrage up to. The issue is much deeper than that.
    I wrote the follow-up post to lend some clarity about my position, because after my comments in the New York Times, people just took them, and ran a race to create whatever story or blog post they wanted to write.
    I was accused to questioning Zoe’s Blackness (which I was clear about in my initial blog post), I was accused of writing that I wanted her fired (not true), the petition was attributed me (I wasn’t. I merely provided a link to it), and a celebrity blogger wrote that I was *the first* person to bring the issue to light, when I clearly stated that Shadow and Act reported on the issue.

    Anyway, this was a good read.

    –Tiff J

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