COMMENT: Hollywood’s Lighter Shade of Black

ALEX WHEATLE PORTRAIT smallAcclaimed local author Alex Wheatle (aka the Brixton Bard, pictured right) shares his view on the decision to cast Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic of the iconic singer’s life.

Can you imagine at some point in the future, settling down into your seat at your local multiplex, readying yourself for a biopic of Kylie Minogue. You have bought your over-priced popcorn and drink, memories of Neighbours bombard your mind and then you try and picture Kylie in the Spinning Around video. The red velvet curtain opens and the screen is filled with the lovechild of South Korean rapper Psy and Rihanna, wearing a prosthetic nose and an Australian sun-bed tan, belting out the first few bars of Locomotion. Hollywood producers wouldn’t dare to insult the intelligence of the public in that way or show a blatant disregard of how their subject looked or what racial background they descended from…or would they?

The casting of Zoe Saldana to play the role of the black icon, Nina Simone, in an upcoming biopic of the singer’s life is not just deeply offensive to black people but to the family and friends of Nina Simone herself and whoever stood by her fighting the many battles she had to fight.

Zoe Saldana. Photo credit: Pulicciano on Flickr,
Zoe Saldana. Photo credit: Pulicciano on Flickr,

Nina Simone was born in 1933 in North Carolina, the sixth child of a preacher’s family. From a very young age she displayed an incredible rare talent for music. She was black, possessed a set of lips that many of today’s Hollywood actresses would inject for and owned a wide nose. She was denied a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music because she had the above features. The way she looked is integral to her storyDetermined to succeed she went on and wrote and sang many classics. Mississippi Goddam, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, My Baby Just Cares For Me and Young, Gifted and Black to mention just a few. She was also very active and vociferous in the civil rights struggle, advocating violent struggle as opposed to peaceful demonstration.

Does Hollywood detest the look and shape of black women so much that they feel compelled to impose Zoe Saldana into this iconic role, a woman of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent? Whatever happened to black being beautiful or black and proud? It’s not as if there aren’t other talented black actresses to choose from who could easily carry the weight of the film. I can think of Viola Davis and Kimberly Elise at the top of my head. Even Lauryn Hill would’ve been a better choice. But Zoe Saldana? Seriously? I have no doubt of her fine acting talent but she looks no more like Nina Simone than I do Tom Cruise.

The stills emerging from the set of the film, showing Zoe Saldana wearing black make-up and a prosthetic nose, reminded me of Al Jolson singing Mammy in the 1920s. In retro television shows reminiscing on light entertainment programmes of the 1960s and 1970s, the Black and White Minstrel show never gets an airing because it’s so embarrassing.

Does Hollywood even care about denigrating women with black features? No they don’t. They have this ideal of beauty that at all costs must be maintained and protected, even if this means humiliating a considerable percentage of the film’s potential audience. How many black actresses did you spot sashaying into the Vanity Fair after-Oscars party? If you employed more than five fingers to count you probably missed the dawn, your breakfast and the morning shift in your office. That is an indicator of how much Hollywood despises black women.

When Kurt Russell quiffed up to play Elvis Presley at least he bore a passing likeness to the King of Rock and Roll in his prime. The long-faced Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln; he didn’t have to don a false nose nor over-indulge in face powder to do so. Nina Simone was a musical genius and a civil rights champion. I would love to see her life and her struggles portrayed on the big screen, but not if that life is depicted by an actress that looks nothing like her.

RELATED: Interview with Alex Wheatle, the Bard of Brixton


  1. Utter shadist and spurious nonsense, but I get it, Zoe is not black enough for you. Nose not broad enough for you. I am so fed up of this type of BS, nonsense and foolishment. She has put her money up, it is her production company that has spent how much to get this made.

    How many black actors is she with her weight in the industry employing, how many in production pre and post and all you can do is harp on about the colour of her skin. If Nina Simone was alive she would laugh in your shade shaming face as you spout this errant and quite pathetic clap trap. She is an actor and actors use make up, you fool. In how many biopics have you seen where the actor does not use make up to look like the protagonist. Your arguement is so flimsy and filled with an almost loathing of Afro people of a lighter hue. For a racist she is as black as black can be. For you she is not black enough. it is a little disghusting and frankly I think you should be ashamed.

    Nina’s story is a powerful one and needs to be told. Diana ross looked nothing like billy holiday in Lady sings the blues. Denzil is not mixed like Malcolm X. Jesse Eisenberg very little like Zuckerberg nor Ashton Kulcher like Steve Jobs. Instead of giving her props for being bold enough to tell the story, the best you can do is be a lacky for “the man” sometimes it really saddens me.

    Luckily Zoe, not some disembodied hollywood has been bold enough to step to the plate where countless others simply raise up their hands and say it can’t be done. Zoe has used her pull so there is something else to see other than the white fest that is presented in the cinema. It is her company that has funded this and got from an idea she probably had as a child of bringing her idol to screen and the best I hear about the project is a bunch of coonery from black commentators. As Malcolm says you will always find an uncle tom to shoot down a black person who stands up to be counted. If you can’t support this brave and beautiful black woman in her endeavour, make your own fucking movie, cast who the fuck you want. If not show some support.

  2. Im confused…why is this blog run by white people about an area which is basically known as black area. where are the black employees?

  3. Good blog and good point. Zaldana is a good actor but they could have selected any of the actresses you suggested. The casting decision looks even more questionable now when you consider the recent Oscar successes of Lupita N’yongo. Will be interesting to see how well it does at the box office.

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