The Nina Simone Bio-Flick Controversy: What Does It Say About Race?

Since the Hollywood Reporter confirmed that Zoe Saldana would be playing the legendary Nina Simone in her upcoming bio-flick, Nina, people have reacted, well, strongly. Social media posts, blogs, and petitions, express concern and often disdain over a light-skinned actress playing the soulful singer.

As yesterday’s New York Times article highlighted, the casting controversy is mainly attributed to an aesthetic discrepancy between Nina and Zoe’s skin color, facial features, and hair texture. In addition, many feel that Hollywood is lightening the role and erasing dark-skinned actresses from the picture.

Nina’s daughter, Simone, also has her reservations about Zoe playing her mother on film. She respectfully addressed the issue in an interview with Dream Hampton:

"I love Zoe Saldana's work. I've seen some of her movies more than once and really enjoy what she brings to the screen. As an actress I respect her process, but I also know that there are many actresses out there, known or not, who would be great as my mother."

Many take a similar stance to Simone’s, and feel as though the rejection isn’t a personal attack on Zoe’s work, but simply a criticism on how Hollywood casts roles starring people of color.

For example, Demeriese Valier started up a petition against the casting of Zoe on She currently has 2,360 supporters, and says, “This is not a diss to Zoe Saldana. She is an excellent actress, but this movie role so much bigger than her undeniable talent."

One of Simone’s Facebook posts, which ignited an array of comments, included some complaining that Zoe isn’t a singer – or black.

“Zoe Saldana is a bad choice. She doesn’t have the look...can't sang...and isn’t BLACK. Somebody do something. Quick!” said one post.

This take is a lot more extreme, and it’s important to bring to light because it reflects the misunderstanding between race and ethnicity. Sure, Zoe is Latina, but she is also black. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Just take a look at the magazine covers Zoe has been on. Not only has she graced the cover of Latina, but also Essence and Ebony in the past.

As a half-Dominican and half-Puerto Rican woman of color, Zoe has also talked openly about race and discrimination in Hollywood, "I've witnessed racism all my life. And of course there's racism and discrimination in Hollywood. You go for a part and they say, 'Oh, we really liked her, she's amazing, but we wanted to go with something more traditional.' As if I'm not a traditional American!” she said in an interview.

Let’s not add to the racism that Hollywood projects, and think twice before we typecast someone’s identity and exclude them without looking beyond the surface.

What do you think of the casting? Do you agree that it should have been a different casting? Share in the comments.