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The problem with (mis)representation is …

Either it will not be an accurate depiction, it will be fiction, or an outright misrepresentation. Those doing the representing will claim as justification, that they merely wish to tell the story of a great person, capture the soul of a people, interrogate society and perhaps find themselves amongst other not-so-believable narratives. You see this a lot in the arts, particularly the visual arts – from fine art to film and television. The othered person, or those whom he or she symbolises, will be treated as failing to understand the work or being oversensitive when they voice their concerns and the business of it all will continue.

It is with the Nina Simone biopic saga in mind that I begin as I have. The casting of Zoe Saldana as the lead character of Simone was met with an enormous outcry from the public, particularly the black population and the adoring, albeit puritanical, fans of Simone’s work. The contentions made included the pointing out of how Saldana is a model-like light-skinned black actress who, despite her competency and credibility as an actress, is regarded as not at all embodying the essence of who Simone was as a person and most especially as a musician.

Added to this is the possibility that Saldana will have to make use of a prosthetic nose, an afro wig and make-up to no doubt darken her up enough to resemble Simone. Whether she will go on to pull off the feat of playing the role of what is certainly one of the most prolific female musical talents and performers of this century remains to be seen.

I must make it clear that I do not refer to the Simone controversy without reason. Recently, while attending the question and answer session and launch of Hugh Masekela’s latest album, this very issue of representation through the medium of a biopic came up. Masekela said something rather poignant and understandable in response to a question about a biopic that he is rumoured to have had in mind for quite some time. He mentioned how part of the reason for the delay and his reluctance owes much to the very real possibility of having to cede over power to a producer or director, who will then go off on another tangent of how they see the subject of the biopic.

The fear is that for someone whose life is layered with a wealth of different experiences, who is as well-established and renowned as Masekela is, only a certain aspect of his very rich life would be selected as supposedly the crux or defining characteristic of all his experiences. Although Masekela did not mention or go into the Simone drama, I imagine that he could easily be the subject of such controversy himself, especially when one considers how sensitive South Africans can be about issues of identity and representation. You can be certain of one thing: if a Hollywood producer picks up on the idea, it is very likely that we will end up with the same frustrations that we have had to endure every time a Mandela-related flick was thrown at us.

But it goes without saying that the business of making biopics is one that falls within the larger commercial juggernaut that is the entertainment industry. In Simone’s case Hollywood was always going to come out tops, even though the idea for the biopic itself started out as an independent idea. If Ray, Ali or the latest Lincoln are anything to go by, you can be sure of one thing – the little guy, as the proverbial symbol of the many disgruntled voices, will be easily ignored – there is money to be made.

Personally, I do not think that Saldana will do for Simone’s biopic what Jamie Foxx did for that of Ray Charles. If it comes to it though, I would much rather have her than an actress who looks the part but doesn’t pull it off. Or worse, a case of blackface which thankfully we will never have to encounter again. While the sensitivities of people cannot simply be disregarded, especially those of the artist, I am afraid there is very little that ordinary people can do. The irony is, of course, that we will probably still go and watch the film when it comes out.

Follow Mpho on Twitter here

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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