A Project for Better Journalism chapter
Featured, Op-Ed

Nina Simone and Colorism

When the trailers and stills from director Cynthia Mort’s film Nina first surfaced online, fans and newcomers alike were outraged by Mort’s controversial choice to use prosthetics and skin-darkening makeup to transform the film’s star, Zoe Saldana, into activist and singer Nina Simone. The issue at hand was colorism, meaning prejudice and discrimination based on skin color alone, often within a larger race. However, the problem at the heart of Nina is, the film’s white director profoundly does not understand the explosive impact of darkening a Zoe Saldana’s skin.

When asked about backlash surrounding Saldana’s makeup, Mort responded, “You help your actor inhabit a character any way that you can. Just as Nicole Kidman put on Virginia Woolf’s nose, or Leo did his J. Edgar Hoover makeup—”.While I understand that it is essential for filmmakers to immerse an audience in a narrative, and much of that comes from visuals, there is an institutional and systematic problem with Nina that isn’t present in the other films Mort describes. There is a long history of media idolizing and commodifying lighter skinned women of color, and it is often harder for dark-skinned actresses and models to get work. Just this past year, there was outrage when the casting call for women in Straight Outta Compton surfaced, with dark-skinned black women with natural hair being ranked as “D-Girls” – the least desirable for a role. When Leonardo DiCaprio put on old-age makeup for his role in J. Edgar, he was not taking a role away from another white actor who often loses jobs based on his skin color and appearance. The same is true for Nicole Kidman. However, when Zoe Saldana enters the frame with a prosthetic nose and darker skin, she represents a culture that is only comfortable with dark-skinned characters on screen whose existence is temporary. Who would rather put in extra effort to darken an actresses’ skin than give an opportunity to a darker-skinned woman.

The subject of colorism is especially important when it comes to Nina Simone and her identity. There is a rich history of color-based discrimination in the Unites States, specifically connected to media and entertainment. At the time Simone was getting her start, many nightclubs and theaters implemented what is known as The Paper Bag Test. Those who wished to perform would have their skin compared to a brown paper bag, and those who were not light enough were not allowed to perform. Nina Simone struggled as a black female artist in this time, and used this struggle as fuel for her music.

She was an activist her whole life, performing at the Selma-to-Montgomery march and writing anthems for the American Civil Rights movement. After becoming popular she knew the significance of her voice and its power to make change. She fought to break down institutionalized racism, the social construct that creates issues like colorism in America. While filmmakers have tried to write off this situation as a mere costume change in an independent film, it is so much more than that. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out to BuzzFeed News, “[The filmmakers] think how Nina Simone looks is really important; if not, there would be no need for prosthetics, there would be no need to darken her.”   Simone’s skin and appearance is essential to her story, and by using makeup and prosthetics in this way, Nina is tarnishing Simone’s work and legacy.

Legacy and systematic racism aside, the most dangerous impact that Nina has is one on a more local personal level. Women of color everywhere are told that lighter skin is necessary to be beautiful. Whether those messages come from the wide array skin-lightening beauty products or the overwhelming lack of dark-skinned women in the media, there are already enough reminders that in our culture, dark skin is not wanted. Casting Saldana only furthers the oppression of young women of color that Simone fought to prevent. If Nina had been cast genuinely with a darker-skinned lead, it would have better reflected Nina Simone’s lifelong fight for justice. It could have given hope to young women everywhere who, like Nina herself, continue the fight for equity at the intersection of feminism and race. Nina Simone is seen by many as an icon of black power, beauty, and self-love. If you saw Lemonade by Beyoncé, you might have noticed Simone’s records proudly displayed next to Beyoncé’s turntable. When choosing to use Simone’s image, Beyoncé knew the power of Simone’s music to convey messages of womanhood and activism. Nina Simone embraced her black female identity at a time when doing so was controversial and dangerous, and her legacy lives on and continues to inspire women everywhere. In casting Saldana and “transforming” her into Simone, the filmmakers betrayed Simone’s powerful legacy and missed the very essence of the woman they were trying to convey.