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The long history of erasing beauty of dark skinned actresses

RACE ROW: Actress Zoe Saldana (left) as blues icon Nina Simone

HOLLYWOOD HAS a long history of erasing the beauty of dark skinned black women.

The casting of Hattie McDaniel as the maid ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind was typical of the racist archetypal roles that dark skinned black women were expected to perform in Hollywood movies.

Hollywood’s ‘star system’ has reproduced racial hierarchies that position white female beauty as the white aesthetic standard. It should then come as no surprise that the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone perpetuates notions that lighter skin black women are more beautiful, attractive and less threatening than their darker skinned counterparts because of their fairer complexion.

These casting decisions are never coincidental or accidental. The lighter skin tones of Saldana is rooted in other archetypal Hollywood tropes such as the sexually promiscuous mixed-heritage ‘tragic mulatto’ figure, who supposedly desires the privileges of whiteness that are apparently denied to her by her African heritage.

The ‘blacking-up’ of Saldana is problematic for all kinds of reasons. However, what is disturbing is how ideas of privileging lighter or whiter skin continues to haunt the way the lives of black women are narrated in mainstream Hollywood movies.

If Saldana reportedly ‘sees no colour’, Nina certainly did. One of her most iconic songs, Four Women, is about the complexity of colourism in the lives of black women of varying skin tones. Rather than the banality of ‘celebrating’ such diversity, Nina is asking us to take a closer look into how their lives are shaped and lived through such racialized tropes. Nina’s own beauty was exquisitely and uncompromisingly expressed through the dark and deep blackness of her skin as much as through the breadth of her own black political consciousness.

Attacking Saldana for playing the role of Nina won’t change Hollywood’s inherent colourism. The real target of our anger and frustrations should be Hollywood as it continues to operate and perpetuate a ‘star system’ that is intent on validating white beauty ideals.

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