Monday, September 10, 2012

Shades of Black (The Flip Side of the 'Zoe-Nina' Debate)

In 1966, the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon penned 'The Four Women', which begins, "My skin is Black/ My arms are long/ My hair is wooly/ My back is strong/ Strong enough to take the pain/ Inflicted again and again." Nina had the posture, past and physicality to make this song not only brazen, but also believable and therefore revolutionary in it's telling. How can Saldana possibly bring the pain in an afro-wig and, God-forbid, dark makeup?   - Nicole Moore "Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone & The Erasure of Black Women in Film"
 Zoe Saldana                                              Nina Simone

The blogosphere floodgates flew open two weeks ago  as news broke that actress Zoe Saldana would be playing the role of the iconic Nina Simone in an (allegedly "unauthorized") indie biopic of the late singer and civil rights activist. The film is said to be less of a portrait of the legend and will focus on a speculative love affair between Simone and her assistant/manager Clifton Henderson (to be played by British actor David Oyelowo)

News of Saldana's role unearthed difficult questions about blackness, race and issues of authenticity. While critiques ranged from the legitimacy of the story itself  to the need for more black directors, screenwriters and producers to tell our stories in a more sensitive and critical way than the usual Hollywood "whitewashed" versions, the overwhelming number of critiques focused on the casting of Zoe Saldana in the title role (as an undeniable product of Hollywood "whitewashing".)

And, don't get it twisted, I'm right there questioning whether a story not even authorized by Nina Simone's daughter or her estate should really be going around masquerading as a 'biopic' and helllllll yes we need to take control of our own narratives and representations in the media. But reading the following statements and countless statements like these that made up the hailstorm as the public sounded off on Zoe's casting was troubling to say the least: 

"She's (Saldana) too light-skinned to be taken seriously as Nina Simone."
"And besides--she's a Latina. She's stealing jobs from real black actresses." 
Whether you're a Saldana fan or think she has the acting skills of a pineapple is one thing. But a disturbingly large number of responses to the news said things like "Saldana is too pretty to play Nina Simone" (ummm, and by "prettier" you mean what exactly?? confront your own skewed colorism and then maybe we can have an intelligent conversation.) "Zoe Saldana isn't even black, she's Dominican (responding to that would take a separate post entirely--but let's just say we all came on the same ships, they just stopped in different area codes.) 

I was torn. On one hand, I believe Nina Simone is an iconic figure whose story in film should match her revolutionary spirit which was a profound reflection of her experiences as a black woman. And yet, the discussions surrounding the issue were making me uncomfortable. Was it merely just my light-skinned guilt smarting-- a little light-skinned privilege with no place to go?

 I felt like I wanted to come to Saldana's defense, a fellow Afro-Latina who has invariably been cast in roles that don't recognize her latinidad and yet have established her as a black actress from playing Judith Scott and Bernie Mac's daughter in Guess Who and Nick Cannon's love interest in Drumline (you all know that was a black movie) to the barrier-breaking Uhura in the J.J. Abrams film remake of  Star Trek. Then all of a sudden, Saldana is being accused of capitalizing on blackness for "monetary value" or "taking jobs from "REAL BLACK actresses" when she's only ever been seen or identified herself as black (the operative word in AFRO-Latina; and, since when has being black ever added any 'monetary value?' People, pleeassee.)

Many comments have also failed to recognize the fact that Saldana has been just as much a product of racialization and an industry that has made it a habit of rendering black bodies (and other bodies of color) invisible. Is Saldana's own racial and ethnic erasure in film illegitimate? Why is her body seen as the vehicle of black erasure?  Does her skin color or her Latina heritage make her own struggle as an actress of color navigating one of the most racist industries any less difficult-- any less real? Are we just talking about skin color or something else altogether?

How would we have felt if actress Kerry Washington had been cast  as Nina Simone? Or if Saldana was cast to play black (and since all we can seem to talk about is skin tone--very light-skinned) revolutionary Angela Davis? Is REAL BLACKNESS less about which side of the paper-bag test you fall on and more about an assumed identity politics that go along with it

Nicole Moore's article "Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone and the Erasure of Black Women in Film" states: "Because Simone's blackness extended as much to her musical prowess as to her physicality and image, it's perplexing that the film's production team, led by Jimmy Iovine, expects anyone, particularly in the black community, to (re)imagine Nina Simone as fair-skinned, thin-lipped and narrow-nosed?"

This statement makes me wonder what we're really seeing when we look at Zoe Saldana. Are we measuring her nose and lips (which are really not that much thinner/ "finer" than Nina Simone's)? Or are we looking at her skin tone, her straightened hair, her thin frame, her mainstream fame and summing up the extent of her "pain" and "struggle" accordingly?  Additionally Moore's article likened Saldana's performance to a type of racial "drag" comparing Tyler Perry as Madea to Saldana as Simone even going as far as to suggest Saldana in "black face" asking How can Saldana possibly bring the pain in an afro-wig and, God-forbid, dark makeup? What makes this actress' racial identity so illegitimate, so inauthentic and so far from blackness that she would need to don an 'afro-wig' and 'dark makeup'? Why can't a 'cafe au lait' complected, 'Afro-Latina' Zoe 'bring the pain'??

So, as you can see, I've been all kinds of mixed up. And it's taken me a few weeks to write this.

I've poured over countless drafts and have had one too many late night conversations with any dear friend that will listen about why the "Zoe-Nina" debate has got me sick and damn tired. I've read countless articles and opinion posts (the most critical and well-executed being Nicole Moore's article quote above and this article by Emmanual Akitobi.) And while I agreed with much of what was being said, I felt like not enough was being said about some of the vitriol being spewed in the other direction against a largely anonymous, generalized mass of  "light-skinned women" and "multiracial women" that were being accused of erasing blackness. I also felt that while the blogosphere lent itself to making sure many voices were heard and people could address the controversy head-on, it was also creating a space where no further meaningful discussion could be had because the reaction especially from black women was, understandably, visceral and swift.

I've swung back and forth between saying what's on my mind or holding  (read: policing) my tongue because I understand profoundly that colorism is real-- that light-skinned privilege is real--that talking about colorism as a black woman hurts and  that talking about light-skinned privilege as a mixed woman is treading dangerously through a painful minefield.

While I love me some Zoe Saldana, I'd be the first to say I'm very doubtful she would live up to the role.  I do believe that Hollywood has a serious and disturbing color problem.  And I do believe that lighter black actresses, are more palatable to a gaze that has yet to confront its own oppressive and marginalizing tendencies (read: its white supremacist nature)-- and no where is that more keenly felt than on the body of dark-skinned black women. 
Adepero Oduye
Paula Patton
Viola Davis
But let's not bash the actresses. In discussions about the debate, along with Saldana, actresses Jacqueline Flemming, Paula Patton, Thandie Newton and Halle Berry have been grouped as the ostensive "Wannabes" against actresses like Adepero Oduye, Viola Davis, Anika Noni Rose, and singers India Arie and Lauryn Hill who have all been suggested as recasting alternatives for the Simone film.

What I find interesting is that all of the actresses in the first group would have been called black just a a few short years ago and now they are being called "bi-racial" and "light-skinned" to differentiate them for "real black" women.  All of these women at one point or another have identified themselves as black, some even clearly stating they are NOT MULTIRACIAL. 

Ultimately, no matter what shade we are, we're still pawns in a system that doesn't value or respect blackness-- its beauty, its history or its incredible diversity. And, the very fact we're  having this conversation is because black women (whether we're dark or we're fair) are still scrambling for scraps and an equal place at the table. 
And light skin does not have to be inherently anti-black. In the United States, it is a reality and a reminder that white blood and mixed blood have been an inextricable part of black history. Let's not forget that the one-drop rule was made to confront multiraciality and to police light skin. And today the value on lighter and bright is no less an instrument of the same system-- just a different manifestation. It has been used as a tool to divide and marginalize black folk. And that's where my heart kinda breaks a little. Let's dismantle the system, not each other.** 

** There is a strong petition in calling on Jimmy Iovine and Cynthia Mort to recast Saldana and what I really appreciate is that it explicitly makes it about the system and not Saldana. 
In 1966, the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon did indeed write 'The Four Women'. It was a song about the realities and pain of black womanhood. Each of the four women was a different shade-- black, yellow, tan and brown.  Their collective and individual pain was just as real... And each was just as black as the next.

My skin is black My arms are longMy hair is woolly My back is strong Strong enough to take the pain Inflicted again and again What do they call me My name is Aunt Sarah My name is Aunt Sarah Aunt Sarah 

My skin is yellow My hair is long Between two worlds I do belong My father was rich and white He forced my mother late one night What do they call me My name is Saffronia My name is Saffronia 

My skin is tan My hair is fine My hips invite you My mouth like wine Whose little girl am I? Anyone who has money to buy What do they call me My name is Sweet Thing My name is Sweet Thing 

 My skin is brown And my manner is tough I'll kill the first mother I see My life has to been rough I'm awfully bitter these days Because my parents were slaves What do they call me My name is PEACHES

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