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Cast Away: Alicia Keys as Lena Horne

If you keep up with any kind of celebrity news, you’ll always hear about some future movie where they’ve already snagged someone to play the lead. The lead is usually someone who’s “hot” at the moment, but do they always fit the role or the character? Um, usually, not.

I frequently receive press releases, etc., with crazy proclamations that one star, or another, is set to play the biopic of someone who’s recently passed. It serves two purposes: 1) To give the star a “serious” role, and 2) to cash in on a recent death. Sometimes it works (Ray), and sometimes it just fizzles.

In 2005, MTV Films/Paramount PIctures blasted everyone with a press release about Mary J. Blige playing the magnificent Nina Simone. My first reaction was: They’re kidding, right? They weren’t.

I just couldn’t reconcile the Mary J. Blige I’d seen on stage and in videos, with the proudly Black and political Nina Simone. I even wrote a blurb on this site and in the e-newsletter railing against the casting. The problem is that I actually know who Nina Simone is. The majority of folks who now watch MTV don’t know who the hell she is: but they know who Mary J. Blige is!

Nina Simone was always fabulously proud of her African heritage, and always made sure that what was on her head reflected what was in her brain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mary J. Blige without her hair flat-ironed and glued to the side of her head. Okay, hair aside, Nina Simone was a classically trained pianist, who attended the Julliard School of Music, earned her doctorate and never let the public dictate her look, sound, or personal life.

Unfortunately, Ms. Blige has always been portrayed by the media as the perpetual “victim” who repeatedly makes bad mistakes and is always striving “over come.” Nina Simone would never allow that, and she would tell such. She also never let anyone make her “feel” that she was less than them, nor would she ever present herself as such. She wasn’t commercial, and had a self-imposed exile to France because her outspokenness resulted in a considerable, political backlash.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re both fabulous singers and entertainers, but I hate miscasting, especially when it comes to African Americans. People still don’t “get it.”

We should be more conscientious about how we allow others to interpret and present us. To ignore intrinsic circumstances and nuances that make someone who they are, is to discredit the person. They can “overcome” these circumstances and issues, but did those circumstances and issues happen to them because of what they represents, or because of how they adapted to them?

For example, to cast a lighter-skinned actor in a role about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is to negate the issues he outlined in his autobiography, specifically, issues surrounding color discrimination from other African Americans in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, while growing up. To cast a darker-skinned man in the role of W.E.B. DuBois is to dismiss the privilege that often accompanied his upper-middle class background, which was overwhelmingly made up of lighter-skinned African Americans. We may not like the history, but there it is.

Now, when I heard the rumor that Oprah Winfrey had picked the real (and ethereal) Alicia Keys to play the legendary Lena Horne, it made more sense to me. I had to ask myself why, considering that Lena Horne is from an “old family” in Atlanta, Georgia, and Alicia Keys is from the inner-city. Not only do they “resemble” one another, but they’re both entertainers. Granted, Alicia Keys is bi-racial, and Ms. Lena Horne is not, but Alicia Keys’ place in 1920’s black society in Georgia would be more historically accurate. Sad, but true.

When individuals who are so unfamiliar with African American culture begin casting us in certain roles, part of the story can be easily lost. (I didn’t “buy” Margaret Avery in the role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple…especially since I had read the book. I was more for Alice Walker’s original choice of Tina Turner, though that was stretching the casting a bit from the book.)

Some actors can excel beyond our expectations regardless of limitations, and that’s in fairness to the actor and director. However, we need to demand better accuracy and representation in how we’re portrayed in film: that goes for men and women. Images in film have an incredible impact on the viewer, and there are very few members of the public who will seek out information beyond the movie screen.

So, here’s cheers to Ms. Oprah Winfrey for actually thinking through on her casting. Given Ms. Keys recent turn in The Secret Life of Bees, I’m sure she will deliver beyond our expectations.

(For the record, who would I have preferred to play Nina Simone? Well, pre-crazy Lauryn Hill, for starters…if ya’ll had asked her in 2005, she’d probably be doing much better now. I’m just sayin’.)

Who Would You Pick to Play Nina Simone? Lena Horne?

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