“Nina Simone’s Face” (2016) is a piece Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic about the upcoming film “Nina” starring Zoe Saldana:
“When I was kid, I knew what the worst parts of me were – my hair and my mouth. My hair was nappy. My lips were big. Nearly every kid around me knew something similar of themselves because nearly every one of us had some sort of physical defect – dark skin, nappy hair, broad nose, full lips – that opened us up to ridicule from one another. That each of these “defects” were representative of all the Africa that ran through us was never lost on anyone. …
“Did we want to be white? I don’t think so. … What we wanted was to be on the right end of the paper bag tests. We wanted hazel eyes. We wanted wavy hair. I had neither hazel eyes nor wavy hair. But I also didn’t suffer in the same way that I saw other kids around me suffer. I was not dark-skinned. And, more importantly, I was not a girl.”
Boys could have, say, a killer jump-shot in basketball, but girls were judged almost completely by their looks. And yet:
“Simone was in possession of nearly every feature that we denigrated as children. And yet somehow she willed herself into a goddess. …
“We look at Nina Simone’s face and the lie is exposed and we are shamed. We look at Nina Simone’s face and a terrible truth comes into view – there was nothing wrong with her.
“Saldana could be the greatest thespian of her time, but no one would consider casting her as Marilyn Monroe. Indeed Nina’s producers have gone to great ends – tragicomic ends – to invoke Nina Simone’s face, darkening Saldana’s skin, adorning her with prosthetics. Neither the term blackface nor brownface is entirely appropriate here. We are not so much talking about deliberate mockery as something much more insidious. …
“It’s possible that the producers were not, themselves, personally racist. This has no bearing whatsoever on anything. In America, racism is a default setting. To do nothing, to go along with the market, to claim innocence or neutrality, is to inevitably be a cog in the machine of racist hierarchy. …
“… 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. In this sense, the creation of Nina is not a neutral act. It is part of the problem.
“It’s here that the term appropriation bears some usage. We’re not talking about someone inspired by the deeper lessons of Simone’s life and her music. We are talking about people who think it’s fine to profit off her music while heedlessly contributing to the kind of pain that brought that music into being. …
“Cynthia Mort, the film’s director, has pleaded with us to see the film before judging. … in some deep way, black women have already seen Mort’s film. Indeed they’ve been seeing it all their lives.”
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Nina Simone
- Zoe Saldana
- cultural appropriation
- internalized racism