Face Value

20 Aug

I’ve been mulling over this whole Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone debate for a while now. My initial reaction was similar to most. Zoe as Nina? Say it ain’t so. Like most, my resistance was by no means a slight against Saldana or her skills as an actress. In fact, she is one of my favorites. After reading a spunky feature on her in Ebony magazine last September, I’ve come to respect her drive and strategic choices for roles that will take her career to the next level.

“When I go after a part, [people] better watch their backs,” she says. “Not because I’m going to crush everybody, but because I’m going to give the best that I can because I strive for excellence. When you don’t get a part, it is for a reason, and these pieces will fall into place soon. … We have a Black president right now, so why the f— would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for Black women in Hollywood when there’s a Black president in my country?” Saldana was quoted as stating.

She has consciously decided not be placed in a box and to use all of her– her Blackness, her Latino heritage and the discipline of her ballerina roots–to consciously drive success. In the interview, she talks about how the role for Columbiana didn’t simply fall into her lap but how had to fight to even have the opportunity to read for the role.   Some may say her drive and her exotic multi-ethic looks have made her quest much easier. Owning features that blur the lines between race may make it easier to drift seamlessly between roles.

In the acting industry, looks are obviously a function of employment. Scripts, often taken from books, describe a character’s appearance and mannerisms down to their toes.  Every now and then directors drift away from the written path, much to the chagrin of diehard fanatics.

But it almost always pays off. Who would have thunk that there were doubts about Judy Garland playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or protested Audrey Hepburn playing the leading role in My Fair Lady?

The role of technology also sticks out. The outcry from actual dwarfs was that Snow White and the Huntsman digitally reduced full-size human beings into dwarfs for the film, instead of casting real ones.

Even I had a bit of a push-back for my role at Mattie in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. In the play, the character is referred as a hefty woman, not exactly the way one would describe me. I would silently wince every time one of the starring characters opposite me would recite a line referencing my character’s weight.

 “But she’s skinny,” I heard an audience member whisper to her date one performing night.

As you can imagine, casting calls are even stickier when the character depicted actually exists beyond the regions of a writer’s mind. A woman playing Marilyn must resemble her and hold her essence. The same is true of Nina. Which brings me back to the debate: Nina’s ebony skin is as much a part of her presence as her sultry voice. The actress that attempts to step into such shoes, she already has gaps to fill without the scrutiny that comes with being too fair for the part. The topic is particularly touchy given the history of colorism among men and women of color.

In yesteryear, public protest for characters cast were sent to studios via snail mail. Today, social media makes such feedback louder, quicker and more viral. Because movie studios rely on the support of the public to sell tickets and build box office revenues, such protests must make give a studio pause. Do they move forward as planned? Or should they heed the advice of the naysayers? Then the question becomes, who is black enough? The most important thing to me is that this phenomenal woman’s story is well-told, regardless of which actress is chosen. 


2 Responses to “Face Value”

  1. Stuart August 20, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    Well let me say that first of all she’s getting these parts because the white owned studios like her because she’s really beautiful to look at. In other words white men want her. She doesn’t even closely resemble Nina Simone. Remember at least Halle Berry resembled Dorothy Dandridge. Also correct me if I’m wrong but I’ve never seen Zoe Saldana have a Black Man as a love interest. By the way Black Men love to look at her to…we’ll probably never get the chance to be her love interest. Since we have a Black president every thing’s okay in Hollywood and America for Black Actresses! A little sarcasm!


    • lcooksmarketer1 August 20, 2012 at 10:59 am #

      Very interesting. But remember, in Saldana’s her very first film, she was Nick Cannon’s love interest in Drum Line. It’s not that she’s more beautiful that other actresses of color: She simply has a look that transcends lines of color or race. She’s playing all her cards, which honestly every actress should do. Why be placed in a box when you don’t have to? Acting is about being a chameleon and the ability to mold yourself to each and every role taken. Unfortunately, for more traditional-looking women of color, the opportunity to break the mold is few and far between: In the words of Gabrielle Union:

      “I still hear things like, ‘Gabrielle, you gave the best read! If we decide to go black, you’re at the top of the list.’ I’ve actually been told, ‘Gabrielle, you’re absolutely perfect for the role, but the role is a girl who’s most popular in school.’ I’ve been to the point where I brought in my yearbook. ‘See how popular I was?’ It really can happen.”


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