Over the past month there has been serious outrage at the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the Cynthia Mort film Nina. Looking at the photos of Saldana we can kind of see how the criticism has become more intense.
The anger isn’t just coming from fans- it’s coming from artists such as India Arie, and Nina Simone’s daughter, who goes by the name Simone. In an interview with dream hampton for Ebony, Simone expresses that while she loves Saldana, she doesn’t think she’s right for the part. Most criticisms have focused on Saldana’s complexion as a light skinned Afro-Latina as the issue, while others have taken issue with the fact that she’s originally from the Dominican Republic, not the United States. Throughout the blogosphere there’s a lot of discussion in support and against Saldana- most of these critiques, problematize some of the issues at-hand: race, casting in Hollywood, and the dynamics supporting the representation of black women in the media. Representation is what makes this entire debate interesting- particularly because a lot of the discussions highlight certain aspects of the representation of black identities, while overlooking what we might add is typically not mentioned in these conversations.
If Zoe Saldana’s casting as Nina Simone is problematic- it is because it reproduces and supports many of the issues intertwined with the representations of black women in the media; these are issues that involve respectability, the simultaneous hypersexualization of the black female body and asexualization of the black matriarch, colorism, and issues that generally involve sexuality and beauty. If we’re going to try and engage with these questions in a more holistic manner, then it’s worth discussing the other ways in which representations of black identities in US mainstream media also involves in the silencing, or we might suggest, colonization of other black identities.
Let’s start with an example: the casting of Jill Scott and Anika Noni-Rose in the HBO Series “No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.” Briefly, the series is based on the book series of the same title by Alexander McCall, a white Zimbabwean author; The series chronicles the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, the proprietor of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, located in the Kgale Hill Shopping Center on the outskirts of Gaborone, Botswana. While the series received critical acclaim for its dynamic representation of Botswana and Batswanian women- there are noteworthy inconsistencies in the context of visual and contextual representation of Botswana’s culture, specifically the casting of two African-American females in lead roles. It’s worth considering how the casting of Scott and Rose highlights our understanding of black identity through a single African-American lens.
(A lot of prominent scholars have discussed this in more depth such as Paul Gilroy and Brent Hayes-Edwards, so if interested, take a look at some of their work and how it demonstrates that in the past century- blackness has often been dominated by the specificity of the African-American experience).
When looking for Mma Ramotswe, the directors of the series stated they could not find anyone in Botswana, whom they thought could play the role, and could not imagine anyone except for Jill Scott. While Jill Scott’s popularity as an American singer and actress was a probable working factor in the producer’s decision to cast her, one can question why the producers could not visualize the character, a Batswanian woman, in a living Batswanian woman.
Another hot topic this year has been the casting of Thandi Newton in the film adaptation of the Chimamanda Adichie’s critically acclaimed novel “Half of A Yellow Sun.” Similarly, blogs were filled with outrage of the casting of Thandi Newton, a light skinned half Zimbabwean/half British actress as an Igbo woman. There was even a petition calling for a recast (There’s one for Zoe Saldana as well).
Interestingly enough these conversations are always framed in terms of colorism, and rarely consider other elements, in how Hollywood’s engagement with black identities throughout the diaspora is particularly limited. When African actors are in films, which take place on the continent they typically play supporting roles at best, with African-American or White American/European actors in the lead (See Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener).
There have been a lot of criticisms for these films and their portrayals of western saviors coming to the continent, but these conversations typically fail to locate the casting of African-American actors as African as an issue. Maybe it’s not, maybe it is- but it’s at least worth considering how these castings indicate a failure to locate and represent African identities.
Most people are dismissive of these conversations- after all, it’s just a movie right? Hollywood remains the world’s largest film industry, and while films are made with an American audience in mind, it’s dismissive to ignore the global space in which these films are produced, viewed, and understood.
This isn’t about making a case for only using African actors to play African roles, or only using South Africans to play South Africans, etc. This is about opening up the conversation and not limiting ourselves to how we think we see race, and what cannot always be encapsulated in our vision. Perhaps with that, we can think about these issues of representation beyond the West, and how other global identities also need to be explored and signified.
Story by OKA contributor Maryam Kazeem.