The Appropriation of Nina Simone

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Robert Johnson, the distributor of the new eponymous biopic of Nina Simone. They asked Johnson’s opinion on the controversy over the casting of Zoe Saldana, as well the cosmetic alterations she’s undertaken for the film:

To say that if I’m gonna cast a movie, I’ve gotta hold a brown paper bag up to the actresses and say, ‘Oh sorry, you can’t play her’: Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?

This is bizarre. Zoe Saldana is donning make-up to appear darker for the film. Why do this if color is irrelevant? It is not any critic nor interlocutor who is asserting that Zoe Saldana isn’t “black enough.” It is the film-makers who made that determination and then—in the most literal and crudest sense—decided to make Saldana blacker.

More disturbingly, Johnson simply does not believe that a racist hierarchy exists within black America. In his eyes there is one racism and it effects all black people, regardless of skin tone, equally:

“That’s almost saying that dark-skinned black people have a special cross to bear than light-skinned,” he said. “That is exactly what was put on us, that’s the burden that was put on us by slave owners who separated us by color.”

This view betrays a deep ignorance of the social science of colorism. More shocking, it betrays a shameful ignorance of Nina Simone’s own life. “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide,” Simone’s daughter Simone Kelly told the Times. And “Her skin was too dark.”

In a diary entry, Simone’s agony was made plain. “I can’t be white,” she wrote...

...and I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise—if I were a boy, it wouldn’t matter so much, but I’m a girl and in front of the public all the time wide open for them to jeer and approve of or disapprove of.

Simone described herself as “someone who’s been robbed of their self respect their self esteem.” She went further “But then why haven’t I killed myself?”

The deep wounds suffered by Simone in her childhood are evident in her description of Saffronia, the light-skinned character in her song “Four Women.” Saffronia was “all them yellow bitches who think that they’re better because they have long hair and their skin is yellow.” Art was a way for Simone to purge herself of such pain and hatred:

What I’m doing is getting rid of the load ’cause I have been just burdened down with all these problems. It’s bad enough to be born black in America, but to be burdened down with the problems within it is too much.

Johnson apparently believes Simone was making all of this up. “You think Rosa Parks’ pain was less than Nina’s when she had to endure not sitting on a bus?” he said. Beyond being thick-witted, this is text-book appropriation—actively profiting from an experience while denying the experience actually exists.

And so the situation stands. We have a production team that is almost entirely white. We have a director willing to continue in the unfortunate tradition of “darkening up” black actors. We have a distributor who is manifestly ignorant of the subject of his own film. And we have the twin phantoms of America racism and sexism, which haunted Nina Simone in life, chasing her down in  death.

Should the film-makers behind Nina be concerned about what message they are sending to the broader country? Should they worry about what messages they are sending to black girls in general, and to dark girls in particular? Should the distributor even bother to educate himself on his subject’s life?


It’s a cool story. Somebody’s gotta tell it.

*Research for this post and the last one came courtesy of Alan Light’s What Happened Miss Simone? and Donald Bogle’s Bright Boulevards. Bold Dreams.