African American Exceptionalism and the Truth Behind the Rage over Zoe Saldaña Playing Nina Simone
In a recent article from the Huffington Post, Zoe Saldaña talks about the Nina Simone biopic that has been controversial all over the Black blogospheres. Saldaña said: “the people behind the project weren’t my cup of tea.” She also said, “the director was fine but there was a lot of mismanagement.”
On June 11th 2015, during an InStyle magazine interview, Zoe Saldaña said: “I think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either.” Those comments may seem, in a sense, post-racial, especially after defending African-American actor, Michael B. Jordan, for playing the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four Film.
The Black Movement in the United States has only paid a particular attention to blackness—leaving out Afro-Latinos as “not being really black.” Being Black in the U.S is equated with being African-American in a time where there is a continuous migration from Africa, the Caribbean and Afro-Latin America. The Black Movement in the U.S invisibilizes Afro-Latinos amongst other Afro-descendants in a time when ALL Black Lives Should Matter. Many African-Americans in the U.S created a controversy over Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone. There were several articles published infuriated with her allegedly “playing a blackface” and being a self-loathing Dominican–although most of these articles also forget she is half Puerto Rican. During a Hip-Hollywood.com interview, Zoe Saldaña clearly states she identifies as a Black woman, but that comment was omitted from many conversations.
According to Terry Swoope, Zoe Saldaña is not a Black woman; she is a Hispanic woman. This reveals the little knowledge that many have in Black America about blackness in the Americas. There is knowledge on the fact that most African slaves went to Latin America, that there is constant white privilege and racism among Latinos, that many Blacks resisted slavery and created maroon communities, have preserved African cultures, religious belief systems, and have been foundational for the development of African-American culture. Although many African-Americans acknowledge that there are Black people in Latin America, the problem arises when those same Black Latinos are in the United States. When black Latinos express their identity and blackness in ways that don’t translate into African-American culture and are curtailed as Latino culture, the problem arises.
It’s not simply about Dominicans or Afro-Puerto Ricans not identifying as Black, but it also has to do with if they are even allowed to be Black in the United States. There was a massive change.org urging to not allow Zoe Saldaña biopic of Nina Simone to come to the fore. Again, Black America has very little awareness of the history of blackface in Latin America and the hundreds of years of racial violence. To suggest that Zoe Saldaña is playing blackface by playing Nina Simone is outright foolhardy. It’s unclear as to who is doing the erasing because it seems like it’s Black America that has been doing all the efforts to keep Afro-Latinos from joining the ranks of Black unity. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, also felt that Zoe Saldaña should not have played Nina Simone: “I did know Nina and I would have liked to see someone with a little more of a likeness and (who) hopefully played the piano.” But the question is more complicated than that. The problem with increasing diversity in Hollywood is not just due to overwhelming white actors, but who gets the thumbs up to play a Black role. Other Black actors have applied black makeup to look blacker: Forest Whitaker played Ugandan president and dictator, Idi Amin, and Kerry Washington playing Anita Hill, a famous and successful law professor who accused Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the supreme court, of sexual harassment. Of course, there was no controversy over either Kerry Washington or Forrest Whitaker darkening themselves for the roles. Meaning, that the only reason the controversy over Zoe Saldaña is not whether she represents the “soulfulness” of Nina Simone, but whether she is accepted as Black by African-American standards. Director and activist César Vargas comments: “I would like to ask the United League of Umbrage why did they not file complaints to Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr for Forest Whitakers’ darkening (as in blackface) for his role in the Last King of Scotland and, most recently, Kerry Washington’s playing Anita Hill. A woman who is obviously a few shades darker.”
In this video, Reginald Jackson says:
“Zoe Saldaña is not even Black. She’s Dominican. Names like Mary J Blige, Jennnifer Hudson, Fantasia, were immediately mentioned to take over the role but for some reason I can only think it’s because Saldaña is a bigger name in Hollywood [and] is having open films such as Colombiana and Avatar that they decided to [cast her] for her box office appeal. But this is very upsetting, this is blackface. This is worst than blackface.”
This video conflates three arguments: 1) black figures need to be given good matches; 2) we need to eradicate colorism and stop assigning light-skin roles to darker black figures; 3) we need to stop using blackface at the expense of colorism. These arguments are well thought-out because they are constant problems that minimize the humanity and integrity of these figures. However, arguing that Zoe Saldaña is not Black is a completely different argument. Meaning, the big controversy behind Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone is actually a frustration with the false belief that a Latina (“because Latinas can’t be black”) who’s not Black is playing Nina Simone. And top of that, putting her in blackface with a prosthetic nose and teeth because of the colorism totem pole–going to great lengths to hire and choose Saldaña is a global problem.
What’s interesting and yet problematic with African-American activism against Dominicans of Haitian descent getting deported in the Dominican Republic, is that while they are for Haitian of Dominican descent (who aren’t asked if they identified as Black or not), continue to avoid tackling the bigger issue on the island, which is creating a Black consciousness both in the Dominican Republic and in the United States.
Many Dominicans of Haitian descent protesting in order to claim their Dominican identity and citizenship. http://www.ryot.org/5-things-know-cleaning-haitians-dominican-republic/935183
I mean, what’s going to happen when Dominicans of Haitian descent identify as Dominican in the United States? Are African-Americans going to ask: “Yeah, but what kind of Dominican?” Or “but you’re really Black because you’re of Haitian descent.” Is their blackness going to be denied or accepted based on the same divisions that we are supposed to be eradicating in the first place? Calling Zoe Saldaña a non-black woman is plainly hypocritical and divisive. One thing is for sure, the controversy of deportation and constant internalized racism in the United States demands a re-evaluation of what being Black is. If Black lives Matter, then All Black Lives should matter equally around the world.
Haitian-Dominican solidarity requires viewing the island and its boundaries as porous and fluid rather than advocating solely for Dominicans of Haitian descent by acknowledging the blackness of both countries.
The first step in removing the Haitian-Dominican divide begins by acknowledging that both countries share histories of slavery, colonial wounds and a need to come together. Acknowledging the blackness of Haitian but yet denying the blackness of Dominicans creates a problem for Haitian-Dominicans–the same way that it creates problems for Afro-Latinos in the United States. We should begin to uncover the issue of African-American exceptionalism as a barrier that impedes multiple black identities in the United States. In fact, when one analyzes the movie, The Last King of Scotland, Kerry Washington also has blackface in order to play the wife of Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), and yet again there wasn’t a big outrage over that. If we are to condemn blackface then we have to include this as a global problem.
In the movie The Last King of Scotland (2006), Kerry Washington put Blackface in order to fit the role of the wife of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
When we see actresses like Jennifer Hudson playing Winnie Mandela, instead of African actresses, there are little complaints. We begin to realize that there is, in fact, an issue that needs to be addressed.
Jennifer Hudson immersing herself in South African culture before playing Winnie Mandela. While it is acceptable for having African-Americans to play both African-American roles and other Black roles it becomes problematic when Afro-Latinos try to play African-American and Latino roles.
Afro-Cuban American singer, actress, and songwriter, Cristina Milian, had to change her name from Christine Flores to Cristina Milian in order to get acting roles. Other Afro-Latina artists, such as Tatyana Ali, Gina Torres, among others, all express their unpleasant experiences in Hollywood and other industries of show business dissatisfied with how difficult it is to get a Latina role for being Black. But what is also important is that they had to play African-American roles to the tee. While it’s easy to point fingers at Latinos and say “it’s you who denies your blackness,” the truth is that many African Americans believe that Latinos cannot be black and that Blackness could not also be inclusive of Latinos. In other words, Afro-Latinos, or those Latinos who are racially black, will never be recognized by them. The Nina Simone biopic will be released next year and we have yet to see what additional backlash or support it will receive. Zoe Saldaña playing this role is just one more case of the lack of “reading” the African Diaspora. The faster we understand that the African Diaspora is present in all of the Americas (read: not just the United States), the sooner we will be able to understand that blackness goes beyond African Americanness, even within the United States. Moreover, the faster we can come together in shared struggles that won’t end up propagating more divisions. Although there is a fear to mention internal conflicts, it is important for these conflicts to get addressed publicly and in unison.
William Garcia is an Afro-Nuyorican by way of Staten Island. He has a BA and a MA in History from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. His research interests are Afro-Latino history, hip-hop and reggaeton in the Caribbean and Puerto Rican transnational migration. He is currently an MA student in Curriculum and Teaching at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @