News Column

Hollywood Makes Zoe Big Deal as Nina

Dec. 7, 2012

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams

Zoe Saldana
Zoe Yadira Saldana Nazario

The culture vultures should stop picking on actress Zoe Saldana.

They crudely claim that she is not fit for the role of legendary singer Nina Simone in a coming Hollywood biopic. Opponents of the casting decision claim that the Dominican and Puerto Rican actress, who has appeared in multiple films playing black roles ("Drumline," "Guess Who"), is not dark enough to play the magnificent jazz vocalist.

While Saldana's skin tone may not be as rich as Simone's, she is a tremendous actress and won the part on the basis of her talent and box office appeal.

As a performer, Saldana has been good enough to star in "Avatar," the highest-grossing film of all time ($2.8 billion worldwide), and hold her own opposite Chris Rock and other Hollywood heavies.

But, unfortunately, there still persists a veiled sense of absolute ownership on the part of small but energized contingents in ethnic populations about what's "theirs." The extension of that ideology is that permission must be granted for any other person to claim a stake in certain things, people or events. In the case of the film "Nina," the claim is that the starring role should have gone to a "blacker" actress - in skin tone, but most important, in her ethnic and cultural affinities.

Saldana is a proud Latina. For starters, her birth name is Zoe Yadira Saldana Nazario. She is fluent in Spanish. She often speaks about her childhood in the Dominican Republic. I once spotted her front and center at Madison Square Garden jamming to the best musician that country has ever produced (Juan Luis Guerra). Detractors claim that she, like Latinos in less glamorous occupations (farming, hospitality, construction), is taking work away from talented and deserving African-American (read: really black) actresses.

I hope we're not entering an era of racial parsing. While many people today are asserting more nuanced racial and ethnic identities, others are trying to push them into a corner and make them prove just how "blank" they are.

That no-win proposition is dehumanizing and reductionist.

And it needs to stop.

The brilliant Nina Simone lived a life befitting a transcendent artist, filled with hardship, failures and sublime artistic genius. She gained legions of fans around the world and across generations. She knew no borders and lived in far-flung places like Liberia, Switzerland, England, France and Barbados.

The attempt to cordon off entire swaths of her fan base with ethnic velvet ropes can only diminish Simone's expansive legacy.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (C) 2012 Mclatchy-Tribune News Service. All Rights Reserved

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