Nina Simone is known for a musical genius armed with perfectly timed piano skills, and a voice coated with emotion and husky bravado. Authoring and popularizing songs like “Mississippi Goddamn,” and “Four Women,” The High Priestess of Soul fearlessly used her music to expose the race problem in the United States. Her ability to wear her heart on her piano keys in songs such as “Black is the Color,” and “The Other Woman” were, and still are both heartbreaking, and healing for women and men. There is much more that can be said for her musical brilliance and activism, but the announcement of having Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone in an upcoming project has inspired me to write about another aspect The High Priestess of Soul is known for—her appearance. Though it may seem taboo to focus on one’s appearance, let’s keep it real. Appearances, or “attractiveness” as defined by a European framework, influences, and moves many aspects of our society—particularly when considering people who live/d their lives in the public. Nina Simone is no exception.
Before I continue, I would like to disrupt the hateful, and mean responses to the news of Saldana playing Simone. While I passionately disagree with choosing Saldana to play Simone, my contention with the choice isn’t because Saldana is not talented, or because she’s not “Black enough.” In fact, such statements are contrary to Saldana’s talents and identity; I, indeed, do believe she is a talented actress, as well as an Afro-Latina woman, therefore Black woman. While one’s taste in Saldana’s talent is personal, it is problematic that her Blackness is contested. If anyone understands the complexities of the Black woman, and their experiences— it’s Nina Simone. Listen to “Four Women,” at least four times to wrap your head around the experiences Nina Simone captures in her lyrics. But, just as she maps out in her song, each Black woman’s experience is different, and is often dictated by their appearance. In her autobiography, I Put a Spell in You, Simone explains her song, “Four Women.”
The women in the song are black, but their skin tones range from light to dark and their ideas of beauty and their own importance are deeply influenced by that. All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair—straight, kinky, natural, which— and what other women thought of them. Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn’t control, and until they had the confidence to define themselves they’d be stuck in the same mess forever—that was the point the song made (117).
Nina Simone’s appearance shaped her experience, and view of the world. While she was political for many of her choices, she was inherently political because of her appearance. As a darker skinned Black woman with features as bold as her music, Simone’s unconventional and striking appearance combated notions of European beauty. Though she began her career by appearing to conform to Western ideals of beauty as best as she could (i.e. straightened hair, Western clothing), as her songs became more political and combative to U.S. politics, so did the way she carried herself. In the mid-60s, Simone’s once straightened hair began to appear in beautiful African-inspired hairstyles and afros. Her dress also became more Afrocentric, fitting in seamlessly with her new hairstyles, and natural beauty. Simone’s music was always her talent and her mode of protest, but her appearance now aligned her methods. She embraced the Black woman society told her to reject, and highlighted the Afrocentricity of her appearance, that at one time, caused her insecurity. As Simone continued her career, she did not conform to European ideals of beauty, but challenged them by gracefully embracing her African roots, showing us that Black is, indeed, beautiful.
Although she eventually chose to use her appearance as a mode of protest, we must ask ourselves, what was the emotional and mental journey it took her to get there? What did she need to do to combat a society that not only ridiculed Black people, but deemed her Blackness as unattractive? Simone ended up becoming a legacy, but the journey there was difficult and ugly, partly because she did not fit into the standard of beauty for a white woman, or a Black woman. Fifty years later, what is deemed as beautiful has not changed much, but Zoe Saldana—the woman who has been chosen to play Simone in an upcoming biopic— has been successful in Hollywood partly due to a beauty aligning more with a European framework. She has been able to work within the film industry in ways that are still unavailable to her darker sisters. In no way am I suggesting that Saldana has had it easy in Hollywood –she’s still a woman of color— but the way she has been able to navigate Hollywood is very different from our Nina Simones’ of today.
Yes, the person playing Nina Simone will be acting, and, of course, the expectation is not that the actress’ experience mirrors Simone’s. But it is pivotal that those in charge of this project are taking responsibility for how they depict Simone’s life, which connects with her appearance—particularly when considering the fact that Simone has been oppressed by systems like the ones narrating her story. If one is to write a version of her story, they must not only understand her music, but they must also understand the politics of her appearance. They must understand that Simone’s looks did matter—the color of her skin mattered, just as her African features and textured hair mattered. Not only did it matter, but it shaped her journey, and the decisions she made about her journey. One cannot write a version of any Black woman’s story without considering how their appearance shapes their experience—particularly when revealing the story of a Black woman living, performing, and activating in the 60s. Therefore, to have Zoe Saldana—a woman who has benefited because of things that Simone was never able to benefit from— play Simone in her biopic is irresponsible and tragic.
There have been some who have cried “colorism!” to the contention of having Saldana play Simone. It’s not fair, some argue, to exclude Saldana from playing Simone because her appearance juxtaposes Simone’s. This argument holds as much weight as “reverse racism.” As Simone points out in “Four Women,” Black women’s skin color, features, and hair texture shape their experiences. If we are to tell the story of Nina Simone, we must acknowledge the connection to appearance and experience by choosing an actress that is better suited physically. If we don’t, this is where we really see colorism. Darker skin Black women are constantly told “they don’t fit the part,” and when an opportunity that cries for a darker skinned sister is created, they are not even considered? How painfully ironic for the legacy and labor of our High Priestess of Soul.
Harlem Cultural Festival, 1969.