Black Enough?

Left: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone; right: Nina Simone

In February “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” aired a brilliant segment about Hollywood “whitewashing,” casting white actors in non-white parts. This infamous practice dates back to the studio era, with examples such as Luise Rainer winning an Oscar for playing a Chinese peasant in The Good Earth, John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and Sam Jaffe in the title role of Gunga Din. Ground zero for whitewashing had to be Mickey Rooney’s bucktooth, exaggerated, stereotypical take on a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Instances of white actors in dark makeup playing Native Americans or African-Americans are too numerous to mention here.

Sadly, whitewashing has not been confined to history. In recent years, Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and Gerard Butler have been cast as Egyptians. Jake Gyllenhaal had the title role in The Prince of Persia, while Rooney Mara played Tiger Lily in Pan. Of course Aloha earned notoriety by having the incredibly white Emma Stone as a half-Asian. Then came the piece de resistance, the announcement that Michael Jackson would be portrayed in an upcoming film by ... Joseph Fiennes???!!! Say what you will about how Michael Jackson looked, he was African-American. Do actors have to be the exact same ethnicity as whom they are playing? No, but as I discussed in an earlier column, Hollywood often offers few substantial minority roles. Having a piece of that very small pie going to white actors only exacerbates the problem.

With whitewashing well in mind, I was surprised to learn of the controversy surrounding Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic, Nina. Zoe Saldana is a woman of color, so it is not as if producers cast Anne Hathaway in the role. Saldana’s skin is lighter than Simone’s was, but why should that be an issue? Denzel Washington has darker skin than Malcolm X, but that did not make his portrayal any less powerful. Some critics pointed out that Saldana has primarily Dominican and Puerto Rican ancestry. Very different than Simone’s lineage, granted. Still, it is one thing to avoid whitewashing, quite another to insist that the actor has the exact same ethnic background as the role. To me the uproar seemed to be political correctness incarnate. In order to correct one problem, the pendulum had gone too far the other way.

Then I talked with a few African-Americans in my office. They shook their heads and said that they too thought Saldana was all wrong for the role. It is easy as a white guy for me to tell an African-American that Saldana as Simone is no big deal. Maybe I needed to listen more. In the Academy Award nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? Nina Simone said that people told her she would never make it because of her looks. Simone’s dark skin and wide nose did not conform to the standard ideal of American beauty. It is hard for me to understand sometimes that many African-Americans grew up with the predominant culture telling them that the features they were born with were inherently unattractive. Simone pushed through that prejudice and challenged the prevailing idea about what beauty was. As African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates explained “Simone was in possession of nearly every feature that we denigrated as children. And yet somehow she willed herself into a goddess. Simone was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about black women who looked like her. And for that she enjoyed a special place in the pantheon of resistance.”

In that context the Zoe Saldana controversy makes more sense. Another writer, Damon Young, opined that, “Much of Simone’s work was specifically centered in her specific experience as a dark-skinned Black woman who existed outside of America’s — White America’s and, sadly, Black America’s — general standard of what’s considered beautiful. Zoe Saldana, on the other hand, doesn’t just exist within the standard. For many, she is the standard.” It was not just that Saldana looked different, it was that her casting seemed to go against what Simone represented.

For some, including Nina Simone’s family, suspicion turned to outright anger when the movie’s poster and trailer debuted. Saldana is clearly sporting dark makeup and a prosthetic nose to look more like Simone. Actors wear makeup and prosthetics all the time, but now the context was different. In light of not just this film’s controversy but the way white Hollywood has often treated African-Americans, I can understand why the “blacker face” has touched a nerve. Singer-songwriter India Arie said that, “In the context of the politics of race in America and the politics of race in the entertainment industry in America, to make a movie about a person like that and cast an actress that has to wear blackface and a prosthetic nose is tone-deaf.”

Adding to the issue’s complexity are other African-Americans in the film world, including Queen Latifah and Paula Patton, who have defended Saldana’s casting. Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, is distributing Nina through his company RLJ Entertainment. Johnson recently gave an interview to the Hollywood Reporter citing “arguments against Saldana's skin tone as akin to in-group discriminatory practices like the brown paper bag test, wherein certain black community gatherings would only admit individuals whose skin was lighter than the bag.” Johnson added that, “That's where some of this comes from, when you hear people saying that a light-skinned woman can't play a dark-skinned woman when they're both clearly of African descent. To say that if I'm gonna cast a movie, I've gotta hold a brown paper bag up to the actresses and say, ‘Oh sorry, you can't play her.’ Who's to decide when you're black enough?”

Of course, there is far more than skin color at issue here. Hollywood is well known for “flavor of the month” casting, where “hot” actors get tabbed regardless of whether they are right for the part. Kevin Costner was coming off a string of hits in the late 80s when he was infamously miscast as Robin Hood. Bruce Willis was coming off his first two Die Hard movies when he was tapped to play a tabloid journalist (originally supposed to be British) in the legendary bomb The Bonfire of the Vanities. I am still not sure why Channing Tatum was in The Hateful Eight other than his being Channing Tatum. Zoe Saldana, in the past few years, headlined Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Star Trek franchise reboot. You can argue how much of those film’s success is due to her (or any of her costars for that matter), but the bottom line is that she has box office credibility.

With Hollywood you also need to throw in some sexism. Even if a role does not call for it, filmmakers will often cast glamourous actresses. The heavyweight champ for this casting goes to Frankie & Johnny. The original play specified that Frankie was a plain looking woman. In fact, Kathy Bates played Frankie on Broadway. So naturally the film role went to Michelle Pfeiffer. Through wardrobe and makeup the film tried to make her ordinary looking, but it is Michelle Pfeiffer. To be fair, Pfeiffer gave a strong performance. Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron won Oscars for “deglamming” in The Hours, and Monster respectively. The trend continues. In March, Margot Robbie was cast as Tonya Harding. I am sure the filmmakers will try to pare down Robbie’s appearance. Still, it is Margot Robbie.

In the Hollywood Reporter interview, Johnson added “Make the judgment on the talent of the actors, make the judgment on the writing, but don't make it on whether or not Zoe Saldana is as black as Nina. You can always say, ‘Gee, I can find somebody who's blacker.’ Let's talk about [the film] in terms of giving talented African-Americans a chance to play roles that they're qualified to play.” Clearly Johnson has an ulterior motive, as he stands to make money from the film, but he has a point. History is rife with actors seeming all wrong for the part, only for them to come through on the screen. Anne Rice attacked Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (based on her book) only to publicly apologize when she saw the film. It is difficult to fathom now, but many thought Marlon Brando was wrong for The Godfather. Much more recently, fanboys railed against Ben Affleck as Batman, but are changing their tune after seeing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Heck, I at first could not understand why Christopher Nolan thought Heath Ledger would make a good Joker. Zoe Saldana certainly has the talent. Any doubters should watch her in the criminally underrated Infinitely Polar Bear. Maybe, in the end, we should just see the movie and give her a chance.

Coates wrote that “there is something deeply shameful—and hurtful—in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.” He is right. The standards of what is beautiful have opened since Nina Simone’s time, but only a little, and on film very little, particularly for women. Some critics suggested the darker Lupita Nyong’o or Viola Davis as more suitable choices to play Nina Simone. Davis garnered multiple Oscar nominations but had to move to television to find a role worthy of her talents. Nyong’o won an Oscar and has not been seen on film since (she did appear in Star Wars: The Force Awakens through motion capture). Maybe one of them should have been cast. Saldana said that other actresses passed on the role, so possibly Nyong’o or Davis declined. But Saldana was the one who was cast, like it or not. Was it right? After all of my ruminating, I am still not sure. I will need to see the film to judge, as Johnson recommended. The only thing I am sure of is that the issues involved are not nearly as straightforward as I thought they were. Nothing about this is simply, dare I say it, black and white.

Adam Spector
April 1, 2016

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