He’s not here for your complaints about Zoe Saldana’s blackface portrayal of iconic signer Nina Simone.
He would like you to know that the problem is yours and not with Zoe’s performance.
According to an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he believes that Black woman’s angst over the movie is rooted in the slave mentality.
“It’s unfortunate that African Americans are talking about this in a way that hearkens back to how we were treated when we were slaves,” says RLJ Entertainment founder and chair Robert L. Johnson, who also founded BET. “The slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks, and some of that social DNA still exists today among many black people.”
Saldana donned skin-darkening makeup and facial prosthetics for the role, for which she was heavily criticized. India Arie called it “tone deaf” casting, and the official Twitter account for Simone’s estate posted: “Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.” Queen Latifah and Paula Patton defended Saldana’s role, however. Patton said of the backlash, “Clearly, someone thought she was perfect for it — she’s an amazing actress, she’s beautiful — and you haven’t even given her a chance and you haven’t seen it yet.”
A day after the trailer’s release, Johnson issued a written statement that read, in part: “Creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.”
Now, in his one-on-one interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Johnson cites arguments against Saldana’s skin tone as akin to in-group discriminatory practices like the brown paper bag test, wherein certain black community gatherings would only admit individuals whose skin was lighter than the bag. “That’s where some of this comes from, when you hear people saying that a light-skinned woman can’t play a dark-skinned woman when they’re both clearly of African descent,” he says. “To say that if I’m gonna cast a movie, I’ve gotta hold a brown paper bag up to the actresses and say, ‘Oh sorry, you can’t play her’: Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?”
Johnson clearly is passionate about the subject and had plenty more to say regarding the backlash: “As an African-American, I will gladly engage anyone on this question of should we be talking about how light or how dark you should be to play a role. Many people who are talking about it don’t even realize what they’re getting into. Imagine if I were to do a biopic about Lena Horne, who’s obviously light-skinned, or Dorothy Dandridge. Would it be fair if I put up a sign that said, ‘No black women apply’? That would be ridiculous. Black Americans should know better than to have this discussion over a creative project. We’re not talking about white against black. We’re talking about black against black.”