I remember the first time I met Ernest Green, the first to graduate Central High School of the Little Rock Nine–that group of students who made school integration in America a moment of historical and democratic note. I learned about him watching a Disney movie, as a 10 year-old, which effortlessly offered more depth than the five pages of study on the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement allotted in my college preparatory school’s 500-plus-page American history book. So when he shook my hand, years later as a recent college graduate, I responded, “I guess you do look like Morris Chestnut.” We shared a laugh.
The power of Hollywood film imagery rests in the fact that not too many people really takes the time separate biopic from fact. So, the growing clamor around the casting choice for a film on Nina Simone, which would be the first major telling on a subcultural hero for African beauty, is worth note.
For one thing, as noted in the 1986 documentary Ethnic Notions, for the majority of Americans, the history of African-Americans has been mostly relegated to Hollywood’s definition of the community, from the early days of blackface and caricature, most recently referenced in Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad” video.
From Tyler Perry’s Madea to the cast of the never since replicated shows of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, including Good Times, The Cosby Show, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, media influences how the world comes to perceive African-Americans and unfortunately how many understand our history. If only history books, news reports and other forums purported a balanced, complex set of stories that have evolved from the black American experience, black images in media would be casual.
Instead, as we enter a debatable age of post-racial black identity–in a context where Hollywood continues a tradition begun in the days of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, where only the lightest actors of African descent, specifically women, can be universally accepted objects of goodness and desire, and coincidentally, the legendary songstress Nina Simone finds her story moving toward the big screen. It is rare to find a work in her musical repertoire that does not reflect the intention of a woman whose deepest passion was celebrating the beauty and the value of the undeniably dark-toned, notably disenfranchised and misrepresented men and women of African descent.
And so, it it seems a puzzling choice for team who will be the first to depict Simone on film to cast someone who doesn’t even remotely claim Simone-like black identity, Zoe Saldana. Saldana who identifies as mixture of cultures, led by a connection to the non-racial Latina identity, is about as distant from evoking the imagery of Nina Simone as she is from evoking a truthful portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor. She is, however, a woman who serves the aforementioned Hollywood-defined look of black beauty with her fair skin tone.
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Saldana is one of an array of actors of color in an era of post-racial black identity driven by stars in an era where African-Americans are de facto black, but intentionally individual. From Tyler the Creator and Donald Glover, to Maya Rudolph and Rashida Jones, representing for the black race is now optional. And while the economic and political challenges of blacks as a racial group continue, identity evolves.
One can be funny and deep; black and not interested in race; of African descent but affiliated with another ethnicity; or traditionally African-American and acknowledging that many African-Americans who have been in the United States for seven generations are already mixed race, to same extent as our president of the United States, who can just more easily trace his ancestry.
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Black America is changing thus casting Black Americans becomes more complex. My own personal identity as a Black woman is increasingly influenced by Maya Rudolph—someone who, unlike me, was born to a black mother and white father—not because of our shared ethnic backgrounds, but because of her personality. Her characters do not often reveal race, instead quirkiness and individuality. And while race is important to me, Rudolph’s fluid identity is informing my own desires for how I wish to be acknowledged by people who deal with me day-to-day. I want more than to be that Black woman; I want to be engaged as that individual.
But bigger than the shading of who plays Nina Simone and post-racial blackness, I exaggerate to say that Meryl Streep is better suited for the role given the gravitas of the icon that is Nina Simone. On merit of casting based on research of the energy and potency of the protagonist, Zoe Saldana does not reach to where Nina Simone aspired. After all, given reconsideration of the film Basquiat, it was not problematic that Jeffrey Wright was fairer in skin color than Jean-Michel Basquiat, who he portrayed; the problem was that the script severely under-served Basquiat’s legacy/intelligence as an artist.
Without any casting experience, I would imagine someone like Regina King, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, or Gina Torres (please let the director know she may call upon me) better suited to breathe life into a woman whose lyrics intone: “Do you think that all colored folks are just second class fools? Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you with the backlash blues.”
Then again it is so hard to find a black actress…[Sarcasm.]
People are justified to worry that anyone born after the peak of Simone’s career will absorb as fact a very color-affected point of view when Zoe Saldana lip syncs, “My skin is black.” Deeper than the question how much Beyonce felt like Etta James in Cadillac Records: what is the lasting impact of diluting the purpose that was Nina Simone?
Then again, if all the dissenters gave each gave five dollars to a Kickstarter for a script and production crew approved by the Nina Simone estate, then Zoe Saldana and the production team for whom she serves as a muse, following an equally baffling casting choice of Mary J Blige, should enjoy their efforts to produce art.
But as it stands, I imagine that if Nina Simone were alive, and a young woman ran up to her after viewing a film led by a Zoe Saldana-type, Ms. Simone might respond, singing off to the gods and goddesses she intoned as only a broad-nosed, wide-lipped, course and curled hair-rooted, browner than mahogany woman born to into African culture-defiling politick could only do, “Please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
Watch Nina Simone Sing “Four Women”:
Jenna Bond-Louden is a cosmopolitan based in Harlem who writes on art, literature, film and social trends. Formerly of the Clinton Foundation where she led the launch of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund at age 22 and later served as a writer to Bill Clinton, her passion is for societal innovation. She served on the board of the Pipeline Crisis Winning Strategies Initiative for Young Black Men and was a 2008 recipient of the NYU Fellowship for Emerging Leaders in Public Service. She runs Imagine 1369, a strategy consultancy firm that helps creative leaders shape a better world.
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100 Reasons Why I Can't Stop Looking At Blue Ivy
1. Mommy & Me
2. Blue. #May10 #NYC
3. Blue Ivy & Jay Z Sip Tea
Blue is surely the apple of Daddy's eye.
4. Blue Ivy & Beyonce Smell The Roses
Beyonce seems like the coolest mom.
5. Blue Ivy & Beyonce Soar The Big Skies
6. Blue Ivy & Mommy
7. Daddy & Me
Blue Ivy walks across mommy's at-home photoshoot, but it's the most adorable photobomb ever!
9. One Big Happy Family
The royal family, Bey, Jay & Blue are all out shopping and we're sure they spent our entire life's savings in 30 minutes or less.
10. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
Beyonce in these heels though?!
11. Beyoncé & Blue in NYC — Nov. 4
Look at Blue in her adorable little bow!
12. Beyoncé & Blue spotted in NYC — Nov. 4
Blue holding on to mommy for dear life.
13. Beyoncé & Blue spotted in NYC — Nov. 4
Momma Bey looking fierce with her mini me in tow.
14. Blue dressed as Michael Jackson.
15. Blue & Ivy
Just look at that face. Seriously, Jay could never deny this child! She knows how to make all his mean mugs!
16. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
Look at that cutie!
17. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
OMG Blue in a top knot? Yasss!
Blue has grown up to be an adorable toddler! We're swooning over this photo of her playing on the beach.
Looks like Blue is taking a walk in mom's shoes...literally.
20. Beyoncé & Blue
There's nothing like being cuddled up in mom's arms.
Blue is looking all kinds of adorable! Look at that left hand go! LOL.
22. Blue On The Big Screen
Bey & Jay look at Blue during a video played at an "On The Run" tour stop. How precious!
23. Pardon Blue's Back
She's growing up so fast! We're loving the top knot. Take that Blue Ivy hair critics!
24. Jump Around
Bey & Blue share an adorable moment on the trampoline. Hello summer!
25. Rocking Some Cute Ponytails
Blue Ivy was spotted with a new 'do! Bey & Jay's mini-me was holding on to her father during a little day stroll.
26. Strolling With Mom & Dad
Blue, Jay and Bey all spotted in East Hampton.
27. Blue Has A Manicure Day With Mama Bey
"Me and my Blue, and my Blue Blue, riding🐝"
28. Hanging Out With Mom
Baby Blue is walking to the door, and it looks like Bey is trying to keep up!
29. Trying On Some Heels
Will Blue be slaying a performance in the near future?
30. Holding On To Mom
Blue looks like she has something to say to Bey.
31. Playing A Game Of Tennis
Blue walks on the tennis court.
32. Cuddling With Mom
Blue & Beyonce have some much-needed cuddle time.
33. Blue Ivy
"The blueprint 🐝"
34. Bey & Blue Take A Stroll
Doesn't Blue look adorable with her colorful dress and cute hair ribbon?
35. The Carter Lounge Together
The family was seen out and about.
36. Jay Z Carries Blue While Bey Looks On
Jay carries Blue in his arms.
37. Leading The Way
Blue Ivy looks too cute with her bowler hat and Mama Bey watching from behind. She's really growing up!
38. Out On The Town
Blue Ivy & Momma Bey enjoy some much deserved time off in Spain.
39. Traveling With Mom and Dad
Blue is used to traveling with Mama Bey and Poppa Jay, but she also looked a little flustered at some moments. It's ok, baby Blue!
40. A Day At The Park
Poppa Jay Z lets Blue Ivy have her way with the bouncy horse.
41. It's A Family Affair
Beyonce, Jay and Blue jetsetting in Dublin.
Blue dressed up like a hipster and plays a quick game of peekaboo! How adorable!
43. OMG It's Blue's Beautiful Face!
FINALLY! We get to see how beautiful Blue is! Look at the adorable headband! "Blue 💙"
44. Blue Ivy
Life's a beach!
45. Brooklyn Stand Up!
"Beyonce & Blue"
46. Blue Ivy's Got Her Own iPhone
"Momma, what's your password?"
47. Beyonce's Lazy Day With Blue
"Momma, I asked you for your password!"
48. When Blue Ivy Takes Your Phone, Beyonce Be Like...
"Fine, I'll go ask Daddy!"
49. Blue Ivy On Tour
"Bey & Blue"
50. It's Playtime
Beyonce & Blue take some time out to play.
51. A Chilly Day In NYC
"Beyoncé, Jay Z and Blue Ivy in NYC - Jan. 19"
52. All Bundled Up
The royal family makes their way to their fancy car.
53. Kisses From Dad
Blue's all bundled up, getting love from Daddy.
54. Blue At The White House
Blue Ivy's taking after mommy and writing a letter.
55. Blue Loves Bo
The White House pup, Bo is showing Blue Ivy some love.
56. The Carters At The White House
Check out the royal family checking out the scene at the White House.
57. It's Christmas Time Again
Blue and Bey checking out the White House Christmas tree.
58. Blue Lovin' Bo
Blue Ivy, dressed like a Princess, showing Bo some love.
59. Like Father, Like Daughter
Blue playing dress up with Daddy's hat.
60. Fun Times With Mommy
Blue Ivy spends some QT with mommy.
61. Mommy & Me
Blue and Bey take a break for some snacks.
62. Silvery Blue
Beyonce carries Blue, while the adorable toddler rocks a metallic jacket that we want and need.
63. The Holy Grail
Blue, Bey & Jay
64. One Big Happy Family
"#miami #newyear #2014"
"Beyoncé & Blue 💙"
66. Blue & Daddy In A Blue Jacket
"Jay and Blue 💙 #NewYear #2014 #Miami"
67. Hold On To Me
"Happy New Year Mommy!"
68. Dora Dora Dora The Explorer
"Beyoncé, Blue and Dora the Explorer"
69. Daddy & Bey
"Look over there Blue, you own that too."
70. Blue's Big B-Day
"Mommy make sure they can only see the back of my head."
71. Painted Faces For Blue's Bday
"Let me get down Mommy, I wanna play!"
72. Kisses From Mommy
Beyonce and Blue prepping for Momma Tina's Masquerade Ball
73. Talk To The Hand!
Beyonce, Jay Z and Blue Ivy were spotted leaving Joey's restaurant in Miami, on January 8th, and Blue had a message for the paps! Talk to the hand!
74. Me & My Daddy
While Beyonce's arm rested, Jay carried Blue from Joey's restaurant, in Miami on January 8th.
75. Blue's First Words
"I'm ready to slay right along with you, Ma!"
76. Imagine The Sound Of This Lullaby
A newborn Blue Ivy gets serenaded by her superstar mother.
77. Don't Mess With Blue!
Every now and again, Blue Ivy reminds you...she is her father's child!
78. All Gold Everything
Blue Ivy takes after her dad's swag. The inseparable duo were spotted in South Beach, Miami illuminating the streets outside their hotel with their yellow luster!
79. All Of The Lights!
"Mommy! All the pretty colors are so blinding! I'm...just..so..overwhelmed! When's my shot coming?! When's my shot coming?!" Blue plays on set with Bey at her 'Blow' video shoot.
80. Hey Blue!
"I can be happy sometimes, see?"
81. Blue Ivy With Daddy
"Why are we clapping, again? I'm not in the shot."
82. Jay Z Tries To Get Blue To Listen To "Magna Carta Holy Grail"
"Daddy, I'm more of a Nas fan."
83. Stepping With Mom
"Wait, Ma. I want the camera to see all angles of this sick dress!"
84. Splashin' & Playin'
"Mom, this water is clean, right? Because I'm not trying to splash in water I can't trust."
85. Beyonce Discusses Important Matters
"Mommy, I completely get it. Yes, I promise to watch the throne."
86. Mommy's Hugs
"Ok, Ma. I love you to pieces, but I like oxygen too." Bey may be the Queen, but this scene from her video "Blue" makes it look as if she can't get enough of being Mom.
87. Blue Ivy Twirls
"Aaaahh, I'm having so much fun not thinking about anything...wiippeee...oh, wait...getting a little sick."
88. Just So You Know...
"I run things. Don't get it twisted."
89. Mommy & Me Loungin'
"Oh, Mommy, I'm so tired of seeing the wigs you snatched last night all on our floor. It's so exhausting. Like, when're they getting picked up? Not now? Oh. Ok."
90. A Kiss For Blue
"Mommy, let me sleep, dang!"
91. Slurpin' On That Milk...Slurpin' Slurpin' On That Milk
"Mommy, gimme that bottle!"
We could watch this adorable GIF of Blue Ivy nonstop forever!
93. Jay Sneaks In Kisses
"Dadddd! Get..Away!..I don't want...No, ugh..No kisses!"
94. Blue Stares Back...
"Hey! Who's that?!"
95. Blue Still Doesn't Get Why Anyone's Here
"No, really, who are you? You're getting to close."
96. Blue and Bey Out For Lunch
"I'm over this now. People just won't let us be. Mom, why can't we just be?!"
97. Blue Is One Tough Cookie
"Ma, please let me just kick them in the face. Like, please, I can't see through all these lights."
98. Blue Jetsets With Jay
"Dad, do we own this boat? I just figured we owned everything, so..."
99. Beyonce Keeps Blue Covered
"Mommy, I think you forgot my feet. I'm cold right now. Are we inside?"
100. Beyonce LOVES Her Blue
Look at that face, how could you not kiss it?!