“Initially, it looked like a Hollywood coup: Zoe Saldana, a high-profile star, will play the jazz singer Nina Simone in the biopic Nina. And although Saldana isn’t known as a singer, neither was Reese Witherspoon before she won an Oscar playing June Carter Cash.
The backlash began immediately. A petition at Change.org, launched in 2012, objected to a “light complexioned” actress (Saldana’s mother is Dominican; her late father Puerto Rican) from playing the dark-skinned Simone. “Appearance-wise this is not the best choice,” the late singer’s daughter, Simone Kelly, told The New York Times. A tweet from Simone’s estate earlier this year demanded the actress “take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”
The furor over Nina is the latest in a series of Hollywood controversies over not just race but sexuality, gender and biological status. Hollywood has seen the pro-gay film Stonewall boycotted for marginalising people of colour, the transgender film The Danish Girl criticised for casting a non-transgender actor as its star, and the upcoming Marvel film Doctor Strange blasted for giving the role of an Asian male to Tilda Swinton.
These vocal objections – along with the outcry over this year’s all-white Oscar acting nominees and complaints by actresses about lesser pay and opportunities – may seem like identity politics run rampant. But they clearly indicate a deep dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s approach to diversity. They also raise a question: Is the old Hollywood model of making crowd-pleasing movies with bankable stars – usually white ones – still working?
“Every year, people of colour are increasing their population by half a percent,” says Darnell Hunt, a UCLA sociology professor who publishes a yearly report on diversity in the media. “Do the math, and within two decades the country will be more than half people who are minorities. The question we’re asking Hollywood is: ‘Whose stories are you really telling?..”