Biopics tend to be hit or miss these days: Angela Bassett BODIED Tina Turner, as did Denzel with Malcolm X, and Will Smith with Ali. KeKe Palmer, Drew Sidora and Lil’ Mama surprised us all with their portrayal of the 90’s girl group TLC. And the coming James Brown biopic “Get On Up” looks wonderfully promising. These actors and actresses studied their characters months, even years, in advance, gaining and losing weight, learning personality traits and idiosyncrasies, and most turned out to be great casting decisions.
But here we have two biopics that have folks quite in a tizzy: one “in talks” for Cleopatra and one recently debuted for Nina Simone. At the center of both discrepancies lies ethnicity and skin tone. In my opinion, one casting director got it right, while the other got it way wrong. Let me explain.
Angelina Jolie was recently cast and confirmed as Cleopatra VII Philopator. Angelina is obviously not any type of black, African, or person of color. As the setting is Egypt, I can understand the rage behind having her play Cleopatra. We as Black people have really latched on to this African/Egyptian royalty model of our ancestors and are really starting to see how white washed and inaccurate many historic films are. HOWEVER, if we think about this historically, this casting decision actually makes sense. Cleopatra was of Greek descent, descending from the Ptolemy dynasty– a family known for its heavy inbreeding. In fact, many rulers in the dynasty refused to speak any Egyptian languages. What we know about Greeks is that most are usually olive complected, with dark hair and dark eyes… Ms. Jolie seems a good match to me. There could have been breeding with the locals at some points– archaeologists haven’t wholly agreed or disagreed on it all just yet– but the idea that Cleopatra would have looked like Angelina Jolie is not outlandish. I have to admit, when I first heard about this casting back around 2010, I didn’t understand it either. What I need from irate black folks is for us to research and read before we become ignorantly angered by things we don’t understand. While Hollywood often misses the mark, the uproar surrounding the casting of Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra is historically misguided and unfounded.
Now let’s get critical here: Nina Simone was not “pretty” by most standards, especially at the time of her popularity. She was black– darker skinned, with a plump nose, big lips, and coarse hair. As an activist in her own right, Ms. Simone’s skin color (its dark tone specifically) was an integral piece of everything that she did. She was a statement in supreme Blackness– gifted, unapologetic and opinionated concerning the events of her time. Much of her music was commentary of the civil rights struggle that went on during her life. She openly addressed race relations of the time with songs like “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Old Jim Crow.” In my opinion, having a slender light skinned woman play Nina Simone would take away an immensely significant part of who she was as a person, as a woman and as an artist. My issue with Zoe Saldana playing Nina does not concern her ethnic make up by any means– she is Dominican-American which I consider to fall under Black Latina. My issue, among others, is that there is no shortage of darker skinned actresses that could have not only been cast as Nina Simone, but that have felt the pains of being a dark skinned woman. There are ample actresses that could have pulled from personal experience; I would have preferred Viola Davis personally. In fact, there are countless lists on these here interwebs of actresses that would have been a better fit for the role.
One of my first posts for the Hive was about how representation matters in the media and how we need nerdy black rock star rappers like Childish Gambino to validate our own diversity. This same concept rings true in cinema as well– we need accurate and diverse representations of ourselves because we need to know the truth historically and culturally. Cleopatra was Greek Macedonian and a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Nina Simone’s blackness was every bit a part of her as her music was and still is. The point is this: when Hollywood isn’t careful in casting for roles like these, it can lead to the erasure of certain crucial components of their lives. When cultural norms and personal experiences that are tied to our skin aren’t taken into account, we miss out on a great deal of understanding and connection that can be made among viewers. As cinema-goers and theater patrons, we have to be critical of what our media feeds us at it pertains to the portrayal of real people and real events. Think about what parts of you you’re able to live with and without, and then consider whether or not these films honor those important parts in others.
Bee critical. Bee educated.