Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Special Editorial – Mamie~Louise Anderson

When a rising star, born in New Jersey and raised in Queens and the Dominican Republic, set off a firestorm covered in publications ranging from the New York Times and Jet Magazine to the Daily Mail, my interest was naturally piqued. But ire is another thing and mine was provoked by a recent email that I received. 
Forwarded multiple times, it attached photographs on Ms. Saldana on the movie set in her role as “Nina Simone.” This email had the rather malicious subject line “Zoe Saldana - blackface-disgrace.” Now that’s a loaded claim, as offensive as Al Jolson singing “Mammy,” so I am addressing this notion here and now for all to consider having second thoughts on the matter.

First of all, how can an Afro-Hispanic-American woman be accused of appearing in "blackface?" It would only be disgraceful to me if she fails to capture the essence and complexity of Nina Simone, but for now I will give Ms. Saldana the benefit of the doubt.

For those of us galvanized by Simone's force of nature artistry during the Civil Rights Struggle, Hollywood is trespassing on sacred ground; but, for a generation that has never even heard a note of her signature protest song "Mississippi Goddamn," we will soon have a chance to correct the record, even if it means disassembling our romantic version of the true woman and artist and the fiery times she walked through by critiquing the finished film. Who was talking about Nina Simone's legacy before this movie casting, hmmm?

For Saldana, it's an enormous acting challenge and a sensitive undertaking, but don't get it twisted. This is Hollywood, not history. We have a better chance at re-electing President Obama than getting Hollywood to be enlightened and invested in telling our stories right every time. I suggest we keep our eyes on the prize, where passion matters most - at least for the next seven history-making days.

So this is my "red-bone" perspective, certain to hit a nerve if not rile others up: I hope, for the sake of Nina's legacy and future investment in bringing our iconic women to screen, that Zoe far exceeds the premature anxiety of her detractors. At the mercy of Show Biz (and make no mistake, despite a pantheon of stars and box office successes, we remain so since "Birth of a Nation") I suggest that we have to have more imagination about what is possible for individual projects until proven wrong. And we have to own the human right to make mistakes without the whole community casting an artist out as a pariah.

It's no secret that a diversity of imagery and authenticity is lacking; that "shadism" is a subtle, painful, intimate and cinematically unexplored conundrum; that, in the wake of diversity programming, our narrative as African-American women, richly portrayed in literature and theater, is marginalized. But it is also true that in order to remain financially viable, we have to keep "skin in the game," so to speak (emphasis on "game").
To my way of thinking, the career success of Halle Berry and Zoe Saldana makes future artistic inroads possible as did the Dorothy Dandridges and Diahann Carroll's of bygone eras. They keep the door cracked with their transcendent, often incandescent creativity and pioneering self-determination. Their lonely trajectory should be embraced, communally and spectacularly.

I really am standing up for the right of artistic freedom which in some cases is the right to be wrong, but not abused. Less a crusade to preserve the memory of Nina Simone, cowering beneath criticism of this casting decision, I suspect, is the envy and contempt for the privileges of that old stereotype, the "tragic mulatto."  Don't believe the hype! You don’t make it in Hollywood without paying dues.

Alienating and slamming these sisters for their "acceptable" aesthetic or taking advantage of the measly opportunities to be a female star, the questionable kudos Langston Hughes called "crumbs from the table of joy," seems historically shallow to me. I don't see the same outrage in the now inevitable interracial coupling of African American male actors. We seem to have a memory lapse on how insulting that once was to the tune of putting Black actresses out of work for decades now since traditional partnering roles have been usurped by others.  Now it’s perfectly acceptable… in fact, expected.

The world is changing and I suggest we hold our horses on this while we assert our creativity and resources where it really counts. And I'm not just talking Hollywood, where myth and fantasy abounds. Blackface Zoe? Get real. One week before an election that will determine the future for many generations to come, I humbly suggest we have other fish to fry.

Meanwhile, consider this:

Stir Builds Over Actress to Portray Nina Simone
See Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone On Set of  Biopic
Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone Darkens Controversy
Zoe Saldana embodies legendary jazz singer Nina Simone as she dons one of her signature head wraps for new film
Zoe Saldana: After Being Cast As Nina Simone, A Controversy About Racism in the Movies Begins
JET Magazine: Photos of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone
And this:
And, just for historical perspective, this:
Max Factor and the Light Egyptian* Makeup
This is story of Lena Horne and Max Factor. The clip is an excerpt from the 60 Minutes interview in 1981. The interview was conducted by the late Ed Bradley

And lighten up,

Mamie~Louise Anderson
BIO: http://about.me/nialoves2dance
BLOG: http://mamielouiseanderson.posterous.com/

Now that is a Thought Provoking Perspective...

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