Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Would Nina Simone Feel About Being Resurrected in Zoe Saldana's Body?

Some time ago, there were reports that Aretha Franklin was so keen on having Halle Berry play her in the story of her life that the Queen of Soul personally approached the Oscar winner to urge her to take on the role. As daring an actress as Berry might be, she wasn't sure if she was up to that particular challenge. After all, she said in at least one interview that I read, she can't sing.

I'm not sure if Zoe Saldana has any singing talent, but I certainly wish she'd taken the Halle Berry high road when she was offered the role of Nina Simone in the upcoming story of the late singer's life. She could have spared us another potentially crummy biopic and herself the controversy over her casting.

The controversy has been brewing for several months now, but it's only now garnering significant play in the press. The beef: The light-skinned Dominican/Puerto Rican actress looks absolutely nothing like Simone, who died in 2003 at age 70, and casting her in the role only further perpetuates the racism that has stained Hollywood for years. An anti-casting petition that was launched at Change.org three months ago has so far received nearly 10,000 signatures, and even Simone's daughter Simone Kelly has entered the fray, posting her own commentary on her mother's Facebook page.

"My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise (Zoe Saldana) is not the best choice."

Hollywood has long taken great liberties when casting actors as famous people. Daniel Day-Lewis, a Brit, is currently receiving raves and may possibly win a third Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the 16th president of the United States in Lincoln. His fellow Oscar-winning Brit Sir Anthony Hopkins has been nominated twice for playing U.S. presidents -- Richard Nixon in 1995's Nixon and John Quincy Adams in 1997's Amistad. For the former, director Oliver Stone didn't even try to make Hopkins look like Nixon. (He'd cast an actor, Josh Brolin, with at least a passable resemblance to George W. Bush in W, 11 years later.) Nor did Ron Howard and his make-up team for 2008's Frost/Nixon attempt to turn Oscar nominee Frank Langella into a dead ringer for the 37th president of the United States.

It's not every day that you luck out and find an actor like Jamie Foxx, who can transform himself into Ray Charles (for his Oscar-winning performance in 2004's Ray) with dark glasses and a period suit. Or one like Helen Mirren, who had the regal bearing and the physical qualities to convince us she was Elizabeth II in 2006's The Queen and win a Best Actress Oscar for her effort. Or one like Denzel Washington, who can convincingly embody civil-rights leader Malcolm X (in 1992's Malcolm X) and boxer Rubin Carter (in 1999's The Hurricane), winning Oscar nominations for both, without major physical alterations

Sometimes you get actors like Will Smith and Angela Bassett -- nominated for playing Muhammad Ali in 2001's Ali and Tina Turner in 1993's What's Love Got to Do with It, respectively -- who, despite being dissimilar to the icons they played in every way except for skin color, succeeded by capturing the essence of their real-life characters. I always thought Reese Witherspoon was too uptown to be home-spun June Carter Cash -- the role that won her the Best Actress Oscar for 2005's Walk the Line -- but at least that girl could sing.

Marion Cotillard didn't have to in 2007's La Vie en Rose (she lip-synced to Edith Piaf recordings), and she looks no more like Piaf than Meryl Streep resembles former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (or Julia Child, for that matter), but for both, the power of make-up worked wonders and paved the way to their Best Actress Oscar triumphs. It wasn't much of a stretch to accept either in the roles.

No, in general, actors don't have to look like the real people they're playing. They don't even necessarily have to be the same ethnicity: Anthony Quinn, a Mexican-American, won the second of his two Oscars for playing French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin in the 1956 film Lust for Life! But the case of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone comes with its own special set of circumstances, not only because of Simone's appearance -- dark-skinned with strong ethnic features -- in contrast to Latina Saldana's, but because of the history that the film will presumably chronicle.

I'm not as familiar with Simone's story as I should be (which is one of the reasons why I was so excited about the biopic when Mary J. Blige was attached), but I do know that racism was a major component of it and that Simone was one of the black musicians who played a key role in the civil-rights movement. It feels so disrespectful and wrong to cast a half-Dominican, half-Puerto Rican actress in the role when you've got a black female thespian as perfect for it as Viola Davis roaming the streets of Hollywood. And what about black singers like Fantasia Barrino, Kelly Rowland, Brandy, Jennifer Hudson and, of course, Blige, who could possibly do for Simone what Oscar nominee Diana Ross did for Billie Holiday 40 years ago in Lady Sings the Blues? Ross, incidentally, was darker skinned and more "ethnic" than Holiday. How's that for progress?

I imagine Saldana, the talented costar of megahits like Avatar and Star Trek, was cast because she will give the film more white appeal, thus increasing its box-office potential. That makes me wonder why no one thought to offer the part to Beyonce, who is as much of a draw. At least that girl can sing, too. In order to assume Simone's physicality, Saldana will wear prosthetics and an Afro wig, and the power of skilled make-up artists will be called upon to give the light-skinned actress a darker complexion.

Isn't that pretty much the equivalent of black face? No way would Simone ever have been down with that.
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