Nina Simone, Zoe Saldana and the question of glamour

On this your certain journey
Do you ever doubt
you have a beauty to match the strength
of those of us who carve
a strength to match your beauty?

~Abena P.A. Busia

Images of Zoe Saldana at the shoot of the Nina Simone biopic have emerged. Her casting is creating so much anger. Resentment. Sadness. Fury. The purpose of anger is to teach us about ourselves. To use it to progress. Audre Lorde says in her essay The Uses of Anger, that, Anger is loaded with information and energy.


For the sake of brevity, let’s say that there are two types of female archetypes in the mainstream public eye. They are the glamorous and the unglamorous. The distinction between the two has to do with desire. The glamorous celebrity archetype evokes desire in men and women alike. She is successful, talented and conventionally beautiful. Her presence arouses a type of desire in her observer that has to do with unattainable perfection. For heterosexual men, her myth enables a detachment from the responsibilities of love, because such a flawless woman cannot be truly loved for she is a fantasy. The unglamorous celebrity archetype is the woman that the majority of women can relate to. She has pain, anger, strength, joy, fear. The sentiment she evokes is not impeccable perfection but realness and thus, ironically, boldness. In real life, men find her alluring but often this is played down because glamour makes more money.
Zoe Saldana’s public image conjures the glamorous archetype. She is on the cover of fashion magazines and graces the url’s of fashion bloggers. Nina Simone’s public image did not. Many women desire Zoe Saldana’s perceived lifestyle and revere Nina Simone’s.


When a glamorous woman is cast to play an unglamorous one there is a counter-reaction. They take on different forms, but always they stir up audiences. With Nina: “No!” Women protest. “You may not insist that every woman’s primary purpose is to evoke desire. Some of our female icons must be allowed to be more than sexual objects!”
We are frustrated that Nina Simone be glamorised, glamour of course also being linked to whiteness; to straight hair, straight noses, light skin and narrow hips.
As symbolical representations of two juxtaposed media archetypes, Zoe Saldana’s success as Nina Simone will depend largely on how she teases out the idea of yearning, of glamour and of women’s relationship to these concepts. The most captivating characters on film embody a bit of both and I hope that Zoe Saldana will deliver that.

The uses of anger

It’s time to move from the limitiations of a repetitive light vs dark skin debate to the important question, which is to ask – On what terms can a woman fulfil herself, when and how can she feel whole despite societal fragmented perceptions of womanhood?
The matter of colourism is part of that question but not until asked on such terms can we deconstruct it, by teasing out the evocations that fuel its stubborn presence. Then, we realise that glamour is always an illusion, and that illusions are malleable. And most importantly, we begin to learn in a sense, to desire ourselves, our own unique archetype.
  • Saphire

    My love, I disagree with you to a certain extent, with the “glamorous” vs “non-glamorous”. For instance, you are a drop dead gorgeous glamazon and a fierce feminist scholar/activist. You are strong, beautiful, intelligent. Did I completely misunderstand you, or is this a repetition of the whole beauty=shallow, ugly=deep?

    Also, this is an issue of power. I mean, I have no issues with Zoe playing Nina. My issues are with who is entitled to write/produce/direct the life of Nina? How come people aren’t pissed of by the fact that this is an entirely white production?

  • MsAfropolitan

    Thank you for the comment and flattering compliment!

    I make the distinction between glamorous and unglamorous, not beautiful and ugly which although often linked are inherently different…
    Beauty is an absolutely real factor while glamour is a delusion, therefore shallow or superficial. Mind you, I’m speaking of archetypes not the real celebrity! No real human being is simply one archetype.
    The glamorous archetype is not about intelligence or depth (google image ‘glamour’ to see what I mean)

    Beautiful celebrities can represent the unglamorous archetype in media, someone like the singer Nneka for example.

    Does that explain further?

    Your question regarding power is part of my argument here about the uses of anger to progress, to ask new questions.

  • Precious Williams

    This is so interesting to me….because my definition of glamour and glamorous is so very different. To me a glamorous woman is a woman who is bold, polished, in charge, possibly considered high-maintenance and/or intimidating by the non-glamorous. She’s not necessarily pretty or beautiful (though she might well be) but she is striking to look at, confident, has presence. I feel that being Hollywood-pretty and being glamorous aren’t necessarily the same thing. Diahann Carroll and Pam Grier and Grace Jones are all glamorous in my view. So are Joan Collins and Madonna. I thought/think of Nina Simone as having been extremely glamorous. I met and interviewed her in 1998 and she was not in great health and she was not happy with her life and yet still she was the most drop-dead glamorous person I’d ever been in the presence of.

    I think quite a bit of the negativity and spite against Zoe being chosen for this role has to do with her complexion and that is extremely unfair. I think people should fall back and let Zoe do her job – I’ve got an inkling she’s going to be pretty good in the role.

  • MsAfropolitan

    Thanks for sharing thoughts hun.. I’m in awe that you interviewed Nina Simone – is there a link to the interview and if not can I maybe share it here?? 😉

    I love your definition of glamour, don’t get me wrong, and we should indeed redefine it hence my suggestion that when we see glamour for the illusion that it is it becomes “malleable”.
    However, my point with this post was partly to argue that 1) glamour as defined in the mainstream most of the time is linked to a limiting idea femininity and 2) that glamour is not necessarily something to strive for because it is an illusion. It’s like chasing a dream. We may be intrigued and entertained by it but it should perhaps not be a state we aspire for. What do you think?

    See, the dictionary definition of glamour is “the often false or superficial beauty or charm which attracts” or “great beauty or charm, achieved with the aid of make-up, beautiful clothes etc “, thesaurus suggestions are “delusional”, “bewitched”..

    We need to question why this is an ideal set for femininity, one that is in fact intangible…
    And I think that Nina Simone rejected that type of glamour, opting for realness, for freedom from the shackles of glamour in a sense…

    I agree that a majority of the reactions to Zoe Saldana based on complexion have been unforgiving. The anger indicates that we have gotten stuck in a retrogressive discussion. I agree with Me’shell Ndegocello’s statement “Give Zoe Saldana a chance”

  • Precious Williams

    Hey Minna :)

    I agree with (and love) these two dictionary definitions of ‘glamorous’.

    1.full of glamour; charmingly or fascinatingly attractive, especially in a mysterious or magical way.
    2.full of excitement, adventure, and unusual activity: the glamorous job of a foreign correspondent.

    I don’t think I’d actually ever considered that ‘glamorous’ was anything but positive and powerful until considering this post today. It is about illusion I guess, but then so are so many things. Merely plucking our eyebrows or filing our nails could be regarded as slightly manipulating our appearances and blurring the straight-up reality of our physical selves.

    As for Hollywood and glamour – I could not even define many of the feted Hollywood actresses as fully ‘glamorous’ because they seem too immature or insipid.

    • MsAfropolitan

      I’m enjoying hearing a different take on glamour. It’s not a concept that appeals in my personal life but that said (plucking from the definitions you listed) I do think illusions can be mysterious and magical things that can enrich our lives with a sense of adventure/excitement.

      The problems arise when things that in themselves are not glamorous need to be transformed into glamorous to either justify them or create desire for them,. I’m thinking of the glamorisation of war, of violence, of poverty even and of female icons.

      I found this quote by Marlene Dietrich which I find relevant, “Glamour is what I sell, it’s my stock in trade”. I think it is that female archetype that she sold whose legacy reigns still today and frankly she (the archetype) quite bores me.

  • Precious Williams

    Oh and I LOVE Me’shell for making that statement (well I already loved her, but you know what I mean)!

    I think my Nina interview is online somewhere, will look for it

    • MsAfropolitan

      I do! Look forward to reading it.

  • Carolyn Moon

    A wonderful dialogue on this ongoing issue. I must say that I’m one of those who are exasperated with the omission of our talented sisters based on the color/physical features pyramid in cinema and other media. It’s complicated for I remember those whom had concerns about Denzel Washington’s physical appearance and interpretation of Malcolm X, however, upon viewing the movie; he captured the essence of him especially after his conversion. He was Malcolm X. I’m also a loyal fan of Nina Simone with all her complexities, beauty and foremost her musical genius. Her daughter cites that there are some discrepancies in this movie not based on reality. Hence, I have a concern about that, although I understand the issue of dramatic license. Does the latter belong in a biopic?

    There is always another way to view :-) and I appreciate your assessment and that of the others for I need to reconsider my initial viewpoint on this matter and I will. Thanks Minna!

    @Precious Williams :Would love to also read that interview!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Carolyn. I was reading about a similar furore when Diana Ross played Billie Holiday, do you recall?

      “Her daughter cites that there are some discrepancies in this movie not based on reality. Hence, I have a concern about that, although I understand the issue of dramatic license. Does the latter belong in a biopic?”

      My take on this is that no creative work, however controversial, can be reviewed before it’s ready.

      • Carolyn Moon

        Oh yes I remember the controversy. Diana was magnificent in that role in my humble opinion and as with Denzel’s portrayal of Malcolm X; she nailed it. Ms. Ross became Ms. Holiday. In fact, although I’ve viewed it a couple of times over the years–if it’s on when I’m going through one of my bouts of insomnia; I will again watch it.

        I think her daughter was miffed because she and other family members weren’t consulted. According to her daughter the relationship between the male nurse and Nina was distorted given he was a gay man and it wasn’t a romantic affair as the movie infers. This may have come off as a fabrication rather than dramatic license. I imagine one should wait and view the movie. From the comments and the articles thus far; many can’t get past the makeup and advanced prosthetics they used on Zoe.

        Oh well…assumptions, predictions and varying biases have taken over pop culture as well.

  • MbA

    This was a great post made better by the comments. I wonder what y’all think about Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard as Winnie and Nelson Mandela and the film being produced by Canadians?

    • MsAfropolitan

      I don’t mind that personally, we are all human beings and no one group should have a sole license to retell any human story.
      Hey, check this out btw, Kenyans telling a Finnish story

      That said, to address the one-dimensional stories that continue to be told about Africans what I think matters most is that art leads progressive discussions. I don’t think we’ll ever live in a world where we can cease to question and thoroughly engage with popular culture.

  • Lodi Matsetela

    I hate to be the one to simplify the issue.
    In a world that hardly reflects the image of a dark skinned black person in a role that is powerful beautiful and GLAMOROUS one would hope that in the retelling of a dark skinned woman’s life, one rife with discrimination not just from other races but her own AS A RESULT OF HER DARK SKIN, that the casting for such a role as Nina Simone’s would be appropriate and closer to the truth.
    I’d love to see that, I’d love to see someone who looks like ME reflected in a powerful, beautiful, glamorous light, never mind whether I believe that in my own life, to counter the incessant images of black beauty (Beyonce,Zoe) as defined by the media and multinational corporations.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the comment, Lodi. My point isn’t that it’s not important to be angry that women with dark complexions are marginalised from the idea of glamour but that the anger needs to be used in a way that also enables to see that the idea of glamour in the mainstream is a crippling myth.

      • Lodi Matsetela

        OK. I misunderstood. I assumed the myth of black glamour/beauty in media goes without saying.
        However anger can be used as an agency of volition and activism, and I think it’s necessary that these voices be heard, and if they cannot effect change, their dissent be noted.

        • MsAfropolitan

          Thanks, I also understand your argument. I acknowledge that it may have come across as though I was saying that colorism/shadeism isn’t an issue and I should have made it more clear that I don’t believe that is the case. I experience privileges from being light skinned so I know how widespread of a problem it is. What I think is important to encourage is to detach ourselves from these racist and sexist myths as the ultimate liberation. To decolonize the mind in a sense. But there are many steps in that process and anger is one of them, we need to use it wisely.

  • Sally

    I agree with @Lodi (above comment). If this was a movie about Margaret Thatcher, I assure you the issue of shades or hues would not arise.