Two things have compelled me to write today. One of them is this:
That’s Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the upcoming film Nina, directed by Cynthia Mort.
The other one is the news that Spike Lee has been fired from directing the anticipated James Brown biopic produced by Brian Grazer. He’s been reportedly replaced by The Help director, Tate Taylor. Not much news about Lee’s dismissal has surfaced, but what I did come across got me thinking about the mishandling of black stories in cinema.
A lot of mishandling has been going on lately. The image above of Zoe Saldana in an attempt at skin darkening (to mirror Nina Simone), is one example.
I write and speak often about my experience seeing Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater when I was eight (see youtube clip below). It was an experience that helped solidify the power of cinema for me. It was a film that brought my childhood fascination and passion for black history into a dramatic, visual realm. It was a film experience that marked my hopes and expectations for the kind of dialogue cinema could have with an audience. Historical inaccuracies aside, it was (and is) what a biopic should be. It was a biopic about a powerful black man, directed by a black man. I think this matters.
I think it matters that the “story” of Nina Simone is being reduced to a fictitious affair she had with a gay man. I think it matters that Nina Simone was a beautiful, dark-skinned black woman and there are several beautiful, dark-skinned actresses who could’ve played this role. I think it matters that the director of this film ignored attempts from Nina Simone’s daughter to help elevate this narrative with some type of credibility. I think this is what happens when black stories are mishandled.
Now, when I read that Tate Taylor will direct a biopic about James Brown, I think more about this mishandling. It’s not a matter of one’s race making them ill-equipped to direct a certain film. It’s a matter of respect and experience and how that experience will translate to a story about a man who helped revolutionize music in America. A man who created an anthem that filled black folks across the world with a sense of pride and self-worth that was decades in the making.
Many people loved The Help, though I can’t be counted as one of them. Many more people loved Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Crooklyn. Many more people recall the impact that these films had on them. Film theorists and critics write about these films, and about Lee. Sure, he’s had his share of box office flops but that cannot take away from the amount of experience, respect, and passion that he could bring to a biopic about James Brown. I don’t doubt that. I also don’t doubt that this decision might be the latest installment in attempting to sanitize black stories by making them more palatable to mainstream audiences (i.e. Tate Taylor and Saldana as Simone). Whatever the reasoning, it just doesn’t sit well with me. The news headline sounds like a bad joke, only it’s not. These are our stories, and they deserve more.
(at 2:41 I talk about the impact that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X had on me as a child)