Recently on one of the listservs I get, there was a link to a petition requesting the producers of a planned biopic about singer and activist Nina Simone not to proceed with Zoe Saldana in the lead role. The primary objection was that Ms. Saldana is a light-skinned black woman and Ms. Simone was dark-skinned. The African American woman who initiated the petition leveled that for too long Hollywood has gotten away with revisionist history. The implication being this lighter skinned woman was more attractive to a broader audience than a darker hued one, the producers were playing into long-held stereotypes about a “Europeanized” concepts of beauty.
There is something to her point though it is also worth noting the caramel-colored singer Mary J. Blige was attached to this project a few years ago as well. One of the comments concerning the petition read in part, “…I won’t spend a near-nickel on a film that portrays Nina Simone with an actress more suited to play Lena Horne.”
It isn’t as if Hollywood suits don’t pander to lowest comment denominators or adhere to certain notions about race and perceptions. I’ve done pitches to one of these suit types who told me point-blank movies with black leads don’t do well overseas. Like you know, it’s not me that doesn’t want to green light your idea, some of my best friends are black people, it them foreigners and their antiquated notions that is the hang-up. But to suggest that Saldana should be denied a shot at playing the complex Simone not based on her abilities but the tone of her skin is ridiculous.
In my paperback original crime novel out next month, the Warlord of Willow Ridge, I consciously obfuscate the race of the main character, O’Conner. The race and ethnicity of other characters is known either by brief physical descriptions and/or last names – though certainly a family or married name is not always an indication of a person’s roots. Being a black mystery and crime writer, I don’t feel obligated to always have black characters, and in fact I like to think people of various ethnicities, genders (well I’ve yet to tackle a transgender person but could see doing that) and ages find their way into my stories.
Having said that, I am conscious of how even in these made up stories of ours, race can be a conscious or unconscious factor in how we “see” a character. That the adage is that unless you’re told or inferred differently, the assumption is a character is white. I wanted to experiment with that notion in Warlord. There are a few times where hints are dropped about O’Conner’s race. Now one person I told about the book when writing it said, well, he must be white given his last name. But given the history of slavery in this country and how slaves got their family names (when I was a kid, my grandmother told me the lore was Wes Phillips owned our family – and I’ve seen the name O’Phillips) who couldn’t, if he were black, have an Irish last name? I’ve known black people named Kennedy. Or what if he was mixed race? Adopted? Or, and this is intimated in the book, it’s not his real name anyway?
Dark or light, white or black or a blue-eyed Asian, the point is to make who we write about as real as we can. To not play into stereotypes but give them dimensionality and not simply serve the plot or just be there to be exotic window dressing. It’s about getting in the skin of our characters and not make them PC, give them their faults and shortcomings. Make them real and I think that’s what resonates with readers – no matter their race.
But I’m still not telling you what O’Conner looks like. Ha.