Zoe Saldana, Nina Simone and the painful history of blackface


— In many ways the casting of Zoe Saldana as the singer and activist Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic stings more for people of color than the recent announcement that white actor Joseph Fiennes was selected to play Michael Jackson.

Yes, with her Afro-Latino heritage (Saldana is Dominican) the actress is a woman of color just like Simone. But the darkening of her skin and the use of prosthetics in an attempt to make her look more like Simone in the forthcoming film “Nina” is a painful reminder of the abhorrent history of blackface in Hollywood.

The use of blackface began in the mid-19th century when performers would darken their skin and exaggerate their lips as part of traveling minstrel shows. Racist audiences had no desire to see African-Americans perform onstage but were entertained by actors made to look black who would sing and dance like “the darkies.”

The practice even spread to black actors who could hide their actual race from audiences with the use of the makeup. Eventually black actors took on stereotypical roles using exaggerated black dialect that was in many ways “vocal blackface.” One example was the now infamous “Amos ‘n’ Andy Show,” which began as a radio show voiced by white actors in the 1920s and transitioned to black actors taking on the roles when the show came to television in 1951.

Fast forward to 2016.

In America a debate rages about the lack of opportunities for actors of color, and a protest movement has taken hold under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. An aspiring presidential candidate is at the center of a controversy involving the Ku Klux Klan, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to shine a spotlight on racial injustices.

In the grand scheme of things, backlash over an actress of color being “browned up” for a role may seem low on the list of outrage priorities at the moment. Right now someone is probably reading this and asking, “Why is this news?”

Here is why: Race and Hollywood have always had a contentious relationship, but the situation takes on a different dimension when we’re discussing Nina Simone. The decision to darken Saldana begs the question of who in the world thought this was a good idea and whether or not the filmmakers actually know the history of the woman they are portraying.

Simone, a volatile and hugely talented singer, songwriter and arranger who died in 2003, has long been beloved by jazz lovers. Not only have her hits such as “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” enjoyed a resurgence thanks to their use in commercials, but the recent Academy Award-nominated Netflix documentary about her life — “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — introduced the chanteuse to a new audience.

But Simone was more than just a performer, she was also an activist.

Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was inspired by the murder of four little black girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church and the death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

The song became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement, and Simone took it very seriously.

“How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune?” she was quoted as saying. “That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”

She also co-wrote songs such as “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Being an outspoken critic of segregation in the 1960s came with a cost, and for Simone she paid with the loss of some white fans who were outraged. Some radio stations banned the playing of the song, and Simone’s daughter, Lisa, tells the story in the documentary of how boxes of her mother’s records were returned from radio stations around the country with the discs broken in half.

Simone’s career never quite recovered, and she eventually became an expat, settling in France, which is where she died.

To have such a woman portrayed by someone in blackface is such an affront that even before the film’s release there are calls to boycott it.

It doesn’t help that Saladana has caused controversy before with her comments about race.

A 2013 interview with BET sparked controversy after the actress said she finds it “uncomfortable to have to speak about my identity all of the time.”

“I literally run away from people that use words like ‘ethnic,’ ” she said, “It’s preposterous! To me there is no such thing as people of color, cause in reality people aren’t white. Paper is white.”

There are so many other actresses who could have stepped into the role and not needed shading (Viola Davis is the first to come to mind). During that 2013 interview, Saldana said she found the uproar “disappointing,” but the audience could say the same for the tone-deaf way producers have approached this project.

On Thursday, Robert L. Johnson, founder and chairman of RLJ Entertainment, which acquired the film for distribution, released a statement about the issue.

“Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone,” said Johnson, who is also the founder of BET. “She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent. The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness. Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance. We are proud to distribute the film headlined by Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo on April 22, 2016.”

The fact that the founder of BET does not seem to get it is a further slap in the face.

Lisa Respers France is a senior producer for CNN Digital and host of the “Lisa’s Desk” video franchise. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.