Simple Justice 60 Years Later

In a unanimous decision on May 17th, 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was illegal. With that one ruling, the walls of segregation in America began to crack, and about 10 years later, crumble.

Brown v. Board launched the career of Thurgood Marshall and for the first time ever made it a requirement that minority students have access to the same books and facilities as white students. You better believe there was resistance. There were threats against black students who went on to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, and those students became known as the Little Rock Nine. In 1960 there was the story of a 6-year-old girl who was subject to vicious taunts and threats from adults while being the only student in the classroom for nearly a year as she desegregated the New Orleans school district. Her name, was Ruby Bridges.

These days schools are still very much segregated here in the United States. A recent study just came out that said New York City has the most segregated public school system in the country. 60 years later, there is still work to be done.

Looking at Nina Through A Different Hue

So I heard about this casting snafu a few weeks back, but it wasn’t until a friend enlightened me about it that I began to take notice.

Apparently there is a biopic being done of the late great Nina Simone. Simone was more than just a singer. She was an activist, intellect, and a woman whose words and music influenced millions of people. Her round nose, dark hue, and potent afro, only helped to accentuate the struggle for Civil Rights during the turbulent 1960s.

Now it has come to light that director Cynthia Mort plans on doing a biopic of Nina Simone entitled, “Nina.” It is worth noting that whenever this movie comes out, it will be done without the blessing of the Nina Simone estate. Simone’s daughter lambasted the yet to be released film, but it appears all systems go with the casting of lead actress Zoe Saldana in the role of Simone.

This is where things get tricky. While I certainly appreciate the work of Zoe Saldana, it is worth noting that she looks nothing like Nina Simone. Some of you may say, “Well the actor doesn’t always have to look like the person they’re portraying.” And in many cases you would be right. However, because of who Simone was and the time in which she lived, and because her looks and features were so closely tied to her music and the movements of a nation, the looks of the actress portraying her do matter somewhat.

Now this isn’t to say Zoe Saldana is not permitted to play Nina Simone because of her lighter skin and more European features, I’m just saying there are better choices out there. For one, I think India Arie would be perfect. Not only because she looks more like Simone, but because unlike Saldana, Arie comes from a musical background. This is key in that audiences might be more inclined to believe India Arie as Simone than Saldana.

Photo Courtesy of Uptown Magazine

The casting of Zoe Saldana has made some people just downright mad. There is currently an online petition sponsored by one website that wants Saldana replaced from the film. A number of blogs and movie sites have picked up on this issue. Extensive debates have been taking place on Twitter and Facebook about just who has the right to portray who and the historical significance of this. Even the New York Times devoted an article to the Saldana controversy last week.

I think it is good that this issue of casting is being discussed and that people are taking notice. I also believe we’re treading down a dangerous slope when large swaths of people demand an actor be removed from a film because they don’t believe that the actor looks enough like the person whom they are portraying. Only time will tell if the director made the right decision in casting Saldana as Simone.

One thing people should keep in mind though, is that this is not the first time a black actor has portrayed a black icon of whom they bear little physical resemblance to. In the 1991 made for TV movie “Separate But Equal,” Sidney Poitier portrayed former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Poitier looks nothing like Marshall, but there were no protests or petitions decrying such discrepancies. Perhaps, something to think about.