Earlier this week I heard a rumor that Mary J. Blige was being replaced in the starring role in the Nina Simone biopic with Zoë Saldaña and I thought ‘wow’ that’s a stretch. Folks are saying that MJB wasn’t up to the challenge but according to The Hollywood ReporterMary walked because of funding issues. But still why Zoë? Does she look like Nina? Not at all (but neither does MJB) Does she sing like Nina? Umm doubtful–can she sing at all? I finally realize that this all comes down to the box office gamble and apparently to some in Hollywood, Zoë is a much safer better to open a flick than MJB. At least someone will be willing to pony up the dollars to make this happen.
While I thought the casting choice was weird I changed my position when I really sat down and thought about biopics. I guess the first one I saw was “Lady Sings the Blues” with Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday. Back in the 70s people balked at that too because we all know Miss Ross doesn’t look or sing like Lady Day. However, what the former Supreme frontwoman did do was make the role her own. As a kid I believed it because I didn’t really know who Billie Holiday was. Most recently, Will Smith gave us a convincing Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali worthy of an Oscar nomination (like Ross). But it was Jamie Foxx who really looks very little like Ray Charles who walked away with the statuette because he captured Charles’ body language, his rhythmic cadence and that help him embody the spirit of his subject (and that’s not easy to do). I’ve ranted before on this subject when one of the Wayans was being considered for the Richard Pryor biopic.
However, beyond box office consideration we can’t deny the color discussion. In giving Zoë this role Hollywood has recast a iconic Black singer with a broad nose, full lips and tightly coiled hair into something short of a Black Barbie. And it will be hard to convey Simone’s beauty or political point of view with authenticity. What are they going to do, put Zoë in a wig? Sure lots of actresses wear wigs but this one might hurt our eyes. it seems very sad that casting offer outweighs common sense.
It hurts us at the box office, it hurts us in the theater and it ultimately hurts our history.