I have not really gone on record to speak on the upcoming biopic “Nina,” which has generated a lot of discussion based on the casting of Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana. I did leave a post on my sister’s Facebook page, so I’m sharing that today (see the text below the picture above). Before I posted my thoughts, I watched the trailer for “Nina” and was not impressed with the acting (Zoe’s diction and accent switched up a few times). I’d already seen the stills for the film, and from the perspective of a makeup artist, I was appalled. The muddy looking foundation used to recreate Nina Simone’s beautiful chocolate skin left me angry. It made me feel like whoever came up with this look was just clueless about black skin AND the history behind “darkening” someone. The prosthetic nose and teeth were just as bad. I know better words than “angry” and “bad” but that came from my most basic reaction. Makeup artists who work on films (I am one of them) have to read scripts, discuss characters, and collaborate with the directors to create the right image for the actors. I wish that I could have been a fly on the wall when the decision was made to darken Zoe’s skin. Did the white director, Cynthia Mort, think that darkening an actor’s skin was acceptable? Did she not realize that even the idea of blackface, makeup used in the past (and unfortunately today) to make fun of black people, is insulting? Better yet, did Cynthia Mort even think about casting a darker-skinned actress to play this role? I’ll ask her if we ever meet.
I get it. Makeup is used to enhance or alter one’s appearance. We see this all the time. In fact, Zoe Saldana was painted blue for Avatar. Things change though, when makeup is used in a way that summons up ugly feelings about race and color in America. Colorism is very real, whether people want to address it or not. Colorism (along with good old -fashioned racism) is why an actress like Zoe Saldana was even presented with this role. It is not her fault that she has a more acceptable skin color in Hollywood, but she could have turned down the role had she been more cognizant of the bigger colorism picture. Colorism is at the crux of the debate I’ve had amongst my friends when we talk about why we hope this biopic flops. We’ve watched “What Happened Miss Simone” on Netflix, a heartbreaking documentary about the life of Nina Simone told from the perspectives of her daughter, ex-husband, manager, and others who knew her well. We know that Nina Simone had to deal with being told that her dark skin, full lips, and wide nose were not acceptable. We know that Eunice Kathleen Waymon (Nina Simone) had to fight HARD to be heard. So to watch the trailer for the Nina biopic, and see Zoe Saldana in blackface makeup and bad afros makes it extremely frustrating to know that the masses who are uneducated about Nina will go out and support the biopic that does Miss Simone no justice.
We’ve seen Denzel Washington portray Malcolm X. He stayed dark. We’ve seen the great Jeffrey Wright play Muddy Waters AND Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He stayed light. Makeup is always used on set, but using it to transform a lighter skinned person to become a dark-skinned person is not okay. Nina didn’t want to be erased. She didn’t want to be ignored BECAUSE of her skin. If those involved in the Nina biopic cared to truly study this woman’s history, they would have made better casting (and makeup) choices.
Until next time,