"For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf"— is the title of the Obie and Tony Award-winning play by Ntozake Shange. The play tells the stories of seven women who have suffered oppression in a racist and sexist society. That title rang over and over in my mind last week after I saw the trailer for the upcoming film, "Nina." I thought— “who will stand up and speak for ‘colored’ girls?”
Months ago when I first learned about the casting of Zoe Saldana as the legendary Black singer/pianist and Black Power advocate, Nina Simone, I thought it was a joke. Only it wasn’t. The recently released trailer reveals Saldana, a Hispanic actress whose father is Dominican and her mother Puerto Rican, in a feeble attempt to portray the iconic Nina Simone (whose skin complexion was as smooth, deep, and rich as the soil in Nairobi). For her participation in the role Saldana, as a light complected woman, wore a prosthetic nose and heavy layers of dark makeup on her face and body. In other words, Saldana donned what has historically been referred to as “blackface.” And she put on a fake “wide” nose so she could “really embody” the character of Nina Simone.
This is beyond egregious. And Saldana should have refused the role. Period. On what planet did she think this was going to be acceptable?
First of all, images of blackface hearken back to a period in our nation’s history where Black-Americans were systematically oppressed, killed, and discriminated against as second-class citizens, and Hollywood (through cinema and television) widely disseminated dehumanizing caricatures of Black life through productions tainted with the stigmas of racism. By the early part of the nineteenth century blackface minstrelsy had quickly become the leading form of “entertainment” in both America and Europe.
White performers like Edwin Forrest, Charles James Mathews, George Washington Dixon, and George Nichols became among the first to apply burnt cork to their skin and appear in white “blackface” before white audiences.
By the 1840s, a systematized form of blackface stage “entertainment” emerged as all the rage in American popular culture— where white performers dressed in white blackface to exploit and demean Black humanity. This form of insidious “entertainment” became so popular that Black performers were relegated to using blackface in order to find work in the mainstream.
The point is— Hollywood has a long and poisonous legacy of re-writing history and (e)racing Black lives and achievements and replacing them with vulgar white lies. We call this process "white-washing," which I define as the effort to increase the cultural dominance of whiteness in identity politics and power relations.
It is important to note that the process of "white-washing" is not restricted to the past. Take a look at recent films released by Hollywood: Gods of Egypt (2016) and Exodus (2014).
Both films purport to depict the life and times of ancient Egyptian culture— only with all white actors. No Black actors whatsoever. Why is that important? Well much to the surprise of many, Egypt is still in Africa! Let us not forget. Thankfully, Gods of Egypt flopped at the box-office making only $14 million on a $140 million production budget.
But what about Angelina Jolie playing Mariane Pearl, a Black woman in, A Mighty Heart (2007). Or Robert Downey Jr., in white blackface in the film Tropic Thunder (2008)? Now, we can add Zoe Saldana in "Nina" to that long catalog of Hollywood's oppressive images.
What are we to understand from all of this regressive imagery? The Saldana situation further reveals that Hollywood doesn’t care about Black people. And we shouldn't be surprised when Hollywood commits racist acts. Because that's what Hollywood does. Check the facts. The Saldana situation also reveals that white directors including the director of Nina are far beyond tone deaf. They are completely out of touch with reality. And this further asserts that Hollywood only loves Black culture to the extent that they can appropriate it and exploit it for their own capital gains. Zoe Saldana should be ashamed. And David Oyelowo deserves blame for choosing to play opposite her. How could he have thought this film was okay?
When it comes to Hollywood films, what we have to understand is that our culture is dominated by media images controlled by people who aren't interested in historical accuracy or true depictions— and unfortunately today, films become stand-ins for actual history. Movies become social and historical documents that we use to understand and explain who we are in the world. And when Blackness is (e)raced from its true legacy of achievement--- the psychic toll is rather costly. According to Variety magazine, Mary J. Blige was originally offered the role of Nina Simone, but she backed out and they cast Zoe Saldana.
My question is, did anyone call Viola Davis? Or was Mrs. Davis smart enough to know that if the Simone Family wasn’t backing this film--- then it wasn't worth making?
Dr. Artel Great is a media scholar who specializes in Black cultural production and popular culture at the intersection of film, television, media, race, and society. He is also an award winning actor, Independent Spirit Award-nominated filmmaker, social impact artist, public speaker, and cultural critic. In his free time, Dr. Great is a professor of American Television History and Culture at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.