by Owen Scrivener
It’s a challenge filtering the conversations about Zoe Saldana’s role as Nina Simone. In an ocean of mouth-foaming social justice warriors, genuinely insulted African American activists and those continuing to fight the racist battles in the United State, it’s hard to tell who is insulted by Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone.
The outrage of black-face is totally understandable, but from what little we’ve seen of Nina, the film set to release this year, few people seem to be scrutinising Zoe Saldana’s impression of a person.
Nina Simone was a pioneer of jazz. Her disciplines as a classical pianist carried a great degree of tonal counter-point to what the genre has become. Her hollow somber vocals an honest projection of her broken self. And she was certainly broken.
Simone Kelly, the daughter of the late musician and singer says Nina was the same person on stage as she was at home. Nina had nothing to sell, she was a transparent creature wherever she went.
Zoe Saldana’s last insult appears to carry none of this to what has manifest as Hollywood’s view of Nina Simone. It has none of the rawness and fragility Nina had, it has none of the genuine sadness or anger that are so characteristic of her wildly varying musical explorations.
Nina Simone’s interviews suggest a considerate and absorbent human being on the edge of collapse and there are moments where laughter seem to hardly mask a pain inspired by what must have seemed like the end of the world to her. Saldana mocks this in her portrayal. And what’s worse is she’s entirely unaware of it.
Zoe’s makeup also seems like an incredibly insensitive choice. Nina’s aesthetics were inspired by what she’d come to terms with. Her African roots were not an appealing style in the commercial world in the early 1960’s. Nina Simone embraced her wiry African hair, her full flips and nose. The makeup artist’s attempt to resemble this seems to have involved plaster, rubber and a single tone of brown foundation. Saldanda looks a mess.
Her casting seems like a tremendous mistake. There are drag queens who could do greater justice to Nina’s character than Saldana. Heck, Carrie Fisher would probably give more honour in performance. Her portrayal seems to not do right by anyone, so why then was she cast?
Header image by David Redfern
image by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive