Poor casting choice? Why Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone is so controversial.

As Hollywood faces growing scrutiny over the industry’s diversity practices, the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic has brought on a fresh onslaught of criticism. 

John Salangsang/Invision/AP/File
Zoe Saldana attends the Los Angeles Premiere of 'Infinitely Polar Bear' held at Regal Cinemas L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles on June 14. Critics have called out the decision to cast the lighter-skinned Ms. Saldana to play singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, whose dark skin and African features were central to her identity and advocacy.

The casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the upcoming biopic about the singer and civil rights activist has resulted in a fresh round of criticism from Ms. Simone’s family and fans.

Following the unveiling of the poster and trailer for “Nina” on Wednesday, critics once more vilified the choice to cast the lighter-skinned Ms. Saldana as the African-American activist, whose dark complexion and African features were essential to both her identity and her notion of beauty for black women.

The outcry comes as Hollywood strives to address questions of race in the face of growing scrutiny over the industry’s diversity practices – including the tradition of assigning lighter-skinned actors for characters who would naturally have brown skin.

“It's disrespectful and demonstrates the depth of the ignorance of the person making the film of the very subject of the film,” Miriam Petty, an assistant professor in the radio-television-film department at Northwestern University told the Associated Press. She urged fans to boycott “Nina,” saying, “I think it's important not to support this film financially because the problem with biopics is they become the last word.”

Over the years, Hollywood has faced a rising tide of criticism over white or light-skinned actors hired to play dark-skinned roles – from the exclusion of ethnic Hawaiians in the Adam Sandler film “50 First Dates” to Jake Gyllenhaal’s casting as the titular character in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Critics also called out the new “Star Trek” films for hiring British actor Benedict Cumberbatch to play Khan Noonien Singh, as well as the adaptation of Japanese manga story “Ghost in the Shell” for casting Scarlett Johansson as the protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi.

In June, award-winning director Cameron Crowe publicly apologized to those who felt that hiring Emma Stone to play half-Asian Captain Allison Ng in "Aloha" was dismissive of Hawaii’s native populations – though Mr. Cameron defended the decision, saying the character was based on a “real-life, red headed local.”

More recently, “Gods of Egypt” and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” have faced similar criticisms, with some noting the omission of Egyptian and Afghan actors to play characters of those ethnicities.

The diversity issues extend beyond casting – and beyond film.

A study of more than 400 films and series found that 87 percent of all directors were white, with broadcast TV directors the least diverse at 90 percent, and just 15 percent were female, according to researchers at the University of California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Only a third of speaking characters were female, and just about 28 percent were from minority groups – about 10 percent less than the makeup of the US population today, the study found.

“When we start to step back to see this larger ecology, I think we see a picture of exclusion,”  Stacy Smith, a USC professor and one of the study's authors, told AP. “We don't have a diversity problem. We have an inclusion crisis.”

Not that the industry hasn’t progressed, some sociologists say. In the ethnically diverse cast of the lucrative “Fast and Furious” franchise and the casting of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as the leads for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Hollywood is showing a growing understanding of the value of diversity – at least from a business perspective.

“It’s like suddenly the networks got the memo: ‘Guess what, diversity sells,’ ” said Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and a professor of sociology at the University of California in Los Angeles, told the Monitor earlier this year. “People don’t only watch people like themselves but they do like seeing their stories.”

Still, the debate over “Nina” suggests that the industry’s race discussion is far from over. Simone’s estate has expressed disapproval of the film, responding coldly to Saldana quoting the civil rights activist.

Yet Robert Johnson, founder and chairman of the studio releasing “Nina,” called Saldana's performance “an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute.”

“She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent,” he said in a statement Thursday. “The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.”

“Nina” is slated for an April 22 release.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.


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