The Nina Simone Biopic Controversy Is Not About “Black vs. Black” Discrimination, It’s About Colorism

After the release of the first trailer for Nina, the upcoming biopic about legendary singer-activist Nina Simone, the Internet was set aflame about the casting choice for the film’s star: Zoe Saldana, a beautiful, light-skinned Afro-Latina. The backlash had been brewing since 2012, when it was first announced that Saldana had been chosen to replace singer Mary J. Blige, who had dropped out after filming was significantly delayed. The outrage had largely dissipated after initial news surrounding the film died out, but the trailer, featuring Saldana with a dramatically darkened complexion and an enlarged prosthetic nose, reignited the fire.

Two weeks after the release of The Trailer That Inspired A Million Thinkpieces, Robert L. Johnson, whose production company RLJ Entertainment is handling the distribution of the film, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter and finally offered his complete take on the criticism surrounding the egregious casting choice.

Defending Zoe’s casting, Johnson insisted that the outrage was significantly misdirected. He drew upon historical references (the separation of dark vs. light-skinned blacks in the times of slavery), parallel examples (“What if I prevented a dark-skinned actress from playing Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge?”), and the concept of “black vs. black” discrimination to help bolster his argument.

While reading his defense, however, I couldn’t help but question how this man, perhaps best known for founding BET — a television network that not only was designed specifically for a black audience, but also helped Johnson become the first African-American billionaire — could be so blind to all the reasons why casting Zoe Saldana in the role of Nina Simone was a terrible decision. Even if he did have a point — though let’s be clear: he did not — his reasoning was disastrously flimsy.

Johnson attempted to use historical references to help justify his decision, but not before he completely stripped them of their inherent significance. At one point, he declared that it’s “unfortunate” that black people have decided to come forth and voice their disapproval of Saldana’s casting because when blacks were enslaved, “the slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks.”

This is historically true, but it fails to acknowledge how this separation played out for each side: light-skinned blacks were set up in the home, given duties that included cooking, cleaning, and caretaking, while dark-skinned blacks were sent out to the field to spend countless hours picking cotton in the blistering heat. This separation clearly favored the light-skinned black, and the ensuing “social DNA” that Johnson claims still exists today continues to favor the fairer-skinned.

He also makes a reference to the “brown paper bag test,” a process that involved comparing a black person’s skin tone to a brown paper bag to determine if they were light enough to participate in various activities. And Johnson uses this bit of history in a similarly misguided way. He implies that, “when [Nina Simone and Zoe Saldana are] both clearly of African descent,” it makes no sense to look to their complexions as a way of determining role eligibility — not unless you’re trying to reinstate the brown paper bag test. Just like his slave example, what his point fails to reckon with is the idea that this test was implemented to… privilege light-skinned people!

Viola Davis, in an interview with The Wrap last year, also drew upon this phenomenon as it related to her Emmy Award-winning performance in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. “That being said, when you do see a woman of color onscreen, the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking,” she began. “That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire.”

What Davis said is important for a number of reasons, but the most relevant is that colorism is “very much alive and kicking.” Too often darker-skinned actresses are passed over for their more Eurocentric-looking counterparts, and it’s not by chance. Nina Simone, who frequently spoke about colorism in her work, occupied a very specific space as an unapologetically dark-skinned, kinky-haired black woman. Whether or not Johnson wants to contend with this reality is beside the point, but there’s no doubt that Simone would have “failed” the paper bag test while Saldana would have “aced” it with flying colors. It’s the basis of light-skinned privilege.

And to deny the existence of light-skinned privilege, as Johnson tried to do with his rebuttal, is, in essence, to deny the existence of white privilege as a whole. Light-skinned privilege is rooted in racist white hegemony and grants wider respect, opportunity, and freedom to those with fairer skin precisely because they resemble the dominant race more than their darker peers. To ignore that simple fact is to actively contribute to a system that continually subordinates the black community as a whole.

Johnson tried to preemptively respond to this argument as well, mentioning that this discussion is “black against black.” And, of course, during this time when the topic of diversity (or lack thereof) is permeating Hollywood, I can see why Saldana’s casting in a potentially Oscar-baiting role is important. (Maybe the 2017 Academy Awards nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role will feature a black woman for the first time in four years?) But the issue at hand shouldn’t be brushed aside simply because of that — as great as representation is, it can only take us so far. When so much of the discussion surrounding Hollywood’s diversity problem hearkens back to the idea that black people just aren’t being given ample opportunity to display their innate talent, it’s counterproductive to give a specifically dark-skinned black female role to someone who is very much not dark-skinned.

What’s fascinatingly tragic about it all is how willfully ignorant Johnson and his team seem to be on these issues. If this biopic hasn’t completely butchered the telling of Simone’s story, there is no way that the people behind it aren’t aware of Simone’s attachment to her dark skin. And judging by their decision to darken Saldana’s skin with makeup and widen her nose with a prosthetic, it seems like they at least understand the importance of depicting Nina Simone as she was known to the people. So why not just go all the way and cast a darker-skinned actress?

My point is not to, as Johnson stated, claim that Saldana is not “qualified” for the role. Rather, it’s to explain why Saldana, who refers to herself as “Black” and “Latina” in equal measure, simply wasn’t the right choice — qualifications notwithstanding. There’s no justification. As much as I don’t doubt that Saldana’s performance is “exceptional and mesmerizing,” I refuse to accept that her casting makes sense.

Ultimately, what troubles me most about Johnson’s response is the manner in which he draws upon black strife to justify a decision that, albeit indirectly, perpetuates white superiority. He asks the rhetorical question, “Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?” But does he really want to know? After all, given the fact that, for centuries, black people have had to deal with structures that mandated they be “white enough,” is it that surprising that we wouldn’t want the legacy of our truest hero of (dark-skinned) Black Pride tarnished by a consumer-minded “light”-washing?