In 1972 a film about jazz singer Billie Holiday, “Lady Sings the Blues,” sparked controversy.
The title role was played by Diana Ross, a Motown star at the time who was unable to match Holiday’s distinctive voice or look. Despite this, the film got good reviews and Ross even got an Oscar nomination.
Fast forward more than 40 years to last week with controversy over another musician’s biopic, this one about Nina Simone, an African American songstress and civil rights activist who died in 2003. The trailer for the movie debuted March 2 and the movie is slated to hit theaters on April 22.
The studio’s decision to cast Zoe Saldana — of “Avatar” fame — as Simone is what’s behind a social media outcry, including an online petition to boycott the movie that already has more than 11,000 supporters: “Getting light complexioned actors to play the roles of dark complexioned historical figures is not only a sign of blatant disrespect to the persons they are portraying, but it is also disrespectful to their families, to history, to the people who look like the persons being whitewashed, and to the intelligence of the audience,” the petition reads.
Indeed, Saldana’s skin was darkened for the role and she also wore a prosthetic nose.
TheRoot.com joined the firestorm last week with its blog post “11 Actresses Who Could Play Nina Simone Without Blackface.”
The author Danielle Young writes: “It’s insulting that they would rather extend the makeup budget to oblivion than cast a woman who actually looks like Simone. It’s not as if there’s a lack of talented women who could have done the role without being painted.”
It’s not unusual for people to be upset about a casting choice given strong notions of how celebrated figures should be depicted. But is the Saldana pushback political correctness or a rational response to a cultural misstep?
This particular choice has struck a nerve, not just because people saw someone else in the role for appearances’ sake, but because of the life Simone lived. She was acutely aware of her appearance and the darkness of her skin, and she was an activist, performing “Mississippi Goddam” at the famous Selma March.
Her biographer Alan Light told TheIntercept.com last week that she struggled with perceptions of beauty between African American and European women.
In Light’s book he quotes from Simone’s diary:
“I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise — if I were a boy, it wouldn’t matter so much, but I’m a girl and in front of the public all the time wide open for them to jeer or approve of or disapprove of.”
The studio distributing the movie is RLJ Entertainment Company, whose chairman is BET founder Robert L. Johnson. In a statement defending the decision to cast Saldana he said, “The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.”
What may also be as important, however, is whether moviegoers are able to accept Saldana singing “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” as she does in the Nina Simone trailer.
In the 70s, before social media, the public seemed to accept Diana Ross singing “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynchings that was brought into the mainstream by Holiday.
In the end, the question will be, is a successful biopic merely about creativity and performance quality, or is it also about the music and the message?