Rice University logo

Saldana and Simone: The Significance is Deeper than Skin Tone

The Zoe Saldana and Nina Simone controversy reveals that most African Americans still don’t understand the business and mission of Hollywood in America. For some odd reason, some African Americans feel that Hollywood has a responsibility to educate through film, market the beauty of Blackness, and make black biopics that reflect real and authentic Black life-stories. Like Hollywood, this is unrealistic, since the most of Hollywood’s success and profits has been strictly entertainment and fantasy, not biopics. For example, according to the Hollywood Reporter article “20 Top Grossing Movies of 2011,” the top three movies were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 which grossed $1.3 billion, Transformers: Dark of the Moon which grossed $1.1 billion, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides which grossed $1billion. In reality, African American biopics can’t compete with the profits made from mainstream entertainment and fantasy films. For example, according to the IMDb All-Time U.S. Box Office hits, out 527 movies, the only movie regarding the life story of an African American that made the list was The Blind Side, and it was number 64 with $300 million in sales. This makes me wonder: was this a “behind the scenes” reason for Sandra Bullock winning an Oscar?  Like Saldana, Bullock is an outstanding actress, and her stellar performance should not be discredited because of the business of Hollywood.  In fact, Bullock’s Oscar may have sparked Hollywood’s growing interest in funding Black biopics (e.g., The Help and Red Tails). In this light, Bullock’s performance on screen may have created the opportunity for Zoe Saldana to make Black biopics a blockbuster hit, and ensure the legacy of Nina Simone will never be forgotten. Both are a win-win for African Americans.

According to the AMC film site, biopics “depict and dramatize the life of an important historical personage (or group) from the past or present era. Sometimes, historical biopics stretch the truth and tell a life story with varying degrees of accuracy.” In this light, Hollywood’s interest in the movie Nina is not to show accurate accounts of her life story or color the screen with the physicality of Nina Simone.  In fact, in the New York Times blog article “Stir Builds over the Actress to Portray Nina Simone,” Ms. Mort, who is white and the director, said the film was not intended to be a biography in the strict sense, but instead “a love story about an artist’s journey unto herself.” She added, “There’s a difference between telling a story that includes and involves emotion and experiences and doing a biopic— she was born here, she did this, and she did that. That is also a great story, but that’s not what we’re telling in that kind of linear fashion.”  So, this reality makes me wonder: what is the purpose of telling the Nina Simone story?

First, Hollywood has to change the color-ism on the screen because the screen aesthetic of maintaining the ‘All American’ beauty ideal is changing. For over 70 years, Hollywood’s color-ism has always favored the image of tall, blond-haired, extremely thin, and blue-eyed Euro-Americans, and will exclude or veil any visual image that they can’t transform/Photoshop to fit that ideal— not to mention that this ideal is hard to live up to even for Euro-Americans. Essentially, all human beings are being held to the unattainable standard set by the non-reality of Hollywood. In other words, the world is viewing a distorted reality that is based on oppressive ideals of whiteness. In the CNN blog article “Can there ever again be an ‘all-American’ beauty?”, Allure Executive Editor Kristin Perrotta said, “There was a dramatic shift in what people considered the beauty ideal in America now. We went from the blond hair, blue-eye, typical all-American girl like Christie Brinkley in 1991, to this dark, sultry Angelina Jolie ideal in 2011. It just was not what you would have imagined the Hollywood ideal being, which is also this tall, thin, blonde ideal that we are sort of used to.”  The article sheds some light on interesting statistics from a poll Allure magazine conducted in 2011, that could be beneficial to Hollywood investors and influence corporate advertising.

It appears that women are speaking out about what they feel the ideal of beauty is in America. Out of the 2000 people who responded to the Allure magazine poll, “73% of women said they find curvier bodies more attractive now than they did over the last 10 years. People polled said they wanted larger lips, butts and hips, an Allure editor said, and 70% of those who want to change their skin color said they want it to be darker. The same survey said 64% believe women of mixed race represented the ‘epitome of beauty.’”  Could this be the real reason behind Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone?  If so, Saldana is the perfect business choice. She will have massive appeal because she represents the new ideal of beauty in America. As African Americans, we must be honest that ‘mixed raced” people who identify with their blackness have played a significant role in our fight for racial equality. I think the Black-Latino mix on screen is beautiful on so many levels, and could spark huge changes in Hollywood.   Although this sounds great, why is this significant to Hollywood? Well, the visual exposure of Saldana, and the appeal of the storyline among African Americans sets the stage for Hollywood to get Black and Latino dollars at the box office.

There’s an African American elite in Tinsel Town. The “Men in Black,” Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Salim Akil, Will Smith, Tim Scott, with “Help” from Maria Brock Akil, Jada Pickett-Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah, means that Black movies and TV can generate major profits.  Out of the darkness, African American producers, directors, Oscar winners, investors, and African American financial support of movies “For Us By Us” shines like a beacon of light.  This FUBU approach to Hollywood is opening so many doors, and is impacting the way Hollywood does business. With Netflix, HD TV, and the Internet, Hollywood has to search for new talent, appeal, and storylines that attract African American and Latino dollars.

A NPR blog post entitled “Minorities at the Movies Fills Seats, Not Screens” revealed that blacks go to the same kinds of features as their white counterparts, but with one difference, according to Matthew Barnhill, senior director of marketing at BET: “We see movies 21 percent more often than the general market, and we’re 22 percent more likely to have multiple repeat dealings of a movie.” According to Marlene Towns, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, “blacks spend more money on movies. We consume what the mainstream consumes, as African-Americans, but we also consume things that are particular to us as a segment.” Towns also states that “a good story will pull in black viewers regardless of the stars’ ethnicity.” The article goes on to say, “Several recent studies also have shown that Latino audiences buy a lot of movie tickets.”  The article concludes with the statement that “Blacks and Latinos do buy more movie tickets than their white counterparts, but studio execs are going to have to better school themselves on how to reach these important, lucrative audiences. If Hollywood manages to do that, it might profit from those ethnic audiences that are going to be discriminating about how they spend their movie money.”

So, I believe the real issues behind this film are an attempt by Hollywood to capitalize on the “new standard” of beauty in America, and the millions of dollars Black and Latino movie-goers spend at the box office. These factors make Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone very significant in the fight for a Black power structure in Hollywood.   I believe there is more at stake than the color line.  In fact, for me the real issue isn’t whether Saldana is black enough to play Nina Simone.  Before I make a decision if Zoe Saldana is right for the role, I would like to ask the following: If Zoe Saldana’s role as Nina Simone is a box office hit, how will that further the African American presence in Hollywood?  Will this film, convince advertisers and investors to financially support movies about Black life? Do we want Black biopics to cross over to mainstream Hollywood?  Will the Simone Estate benefit from the story of Nina Simone? If not, why? If so, how?  What role should Hollywood play in the fight for racial progress in the 21st century? As African Americans we really need to think this through. Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone could create many opportunities for many more African American life-stories in film.   The harvest is here— the Nina Simone story is everybody’s story of color! So, let’s not draw the line on skin-tone alone. Let’s look at all the options and consider the best strategy to color the screen in Hollywood.  If we protest the film based on the color-line, then, in the words of Martin Luther King, “Where do we go from here?”

Aundrea Matthews
Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies
Area of Study: Religion & Theology of the African Diaspora, Race and Identity/Culture

Comments are closed.