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Voices: Why Shouldn't An Afro-Latina Play An African American?

Can a woman of black skin, but of Latino ethnicity, be racially or culturally qualified to play an African-American role?

The recent polemic involving Latina actress Zoe Saldana and the new Nina Simone biopic trailer, “Nina”, dredged up painful questions about blackface, Hollywood and the roles minorities have played - or been allowed to play - throughout our film history.

But as a byproduct of the controversy, another question about skin color too has arisen - can a woman of black skin, but of Latino ethnicity, be racially or culturally qualified to play an African-American role?

When Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, expressed at one point her disappointment in Saldana’s casting saying, "There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother…” and when Simone’s brother, Sam Waymon, 71, suggested other artists of color such as Viola Davis or songstress India Arie could have been better choices, then one has to think no, at least not for the film role of Nina Simone.

One can assume many reasons on why Saldana has not been given any support from the family and estate to inhabit Simone’s life on film. Perhaps they think she is not "black enough” or perhaps they think she does not share in the historic pain of the African-American experience. What ever the reason may be, not everyone agrees that she is unqualified for the role.

“Nina” writer and director, Cynthia Mort herself said to us, “Zoe gave an incredible, courageous performance and we gave her the ability to best inhabit the character. She had an integral quality of strength and we felt she was the woman to portray it.”

At a red carpet for the film “The Perfect Match,” Queen Latifah also argued against Saldana’s backlash. “I think Zoe Saldana is a great actress - she is of African descent, I don’t see why she shouldn’t play the role. I just want to see it. Get rid of the hype and let’s go watch a movie.”

RELATED: Some People Don't Think Zoe Saldana Should Be Playing Nina Simone

Casting backlashes usually occur among blacks and whites. Take for example the adverse reaction social media gave author J.K. Rowling back in December for making Hermione black in a new Harry Potter play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”. Or remember black actor Michael B. Jordan playing The Human Torch, a white character from the Marvel comic books, in the latest reboot of the “Fantastic Four”.

Yet rarely do these type of black versus white questions involve blacks versus Latinos, which is why Saldana’s situation is an unusual and complex one.

Saldana is of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage, and curiously enough, not one person has gone on record to officially say Saldana shouldn’t play Simone because she is Latina. Though it is not a point of discussion yet, it is becoming harder to think that her Hispanic heritage isn’t somehow partially at play here.

When asked if Saldana wasn’t “black enough” to play the role of Nina Simone, India Arie, once a candidate for the role, commented on the complexity of the situation. “It’s messy to put it that way. I think the best way to say it is that they casted her against type and went too far to make her fit,” said Arie.

“I see her as a black person of Hispanic origin, but I don’t even know what that really means, because I don’t know anything about race and Hispanic culture,” Arie said.

Afro-Latino casting has created a new dilemma in Hollywood. It is an industry which habitually sees Latinos as very light "brown" actors in the image of John Leguizamo, Eva Longoria or Benicio Del Toro. But when an actor like Laz Alonso , a black skinned Afro-Latino of Cuban heritage walks in the door of an audition, the predicament is one that can flummox casting directors.

“You can be both,” says Alonso. “The same way that Latinos can be black & Latino is the same way you can be black and Jamaican, or black and British, or black and Canadian. It doesn't mean that you're not black.”

In fact, one of the first known Africans in America, Juan Garrido, was brought by Spanish explorers in the early 16th century, traveled to the island of Santo Domingo, helped invade and capture Puerto Rico and Cuba and lived in Mexico City for a period of his life. He is one of the first known African freemen - and is also known as a Spanish conquistador. It helps to understand that even one of the earliest Africans in America was in fact tied to a Hispanic and Latino culture.

The NBCUniverso web documentary “Black and Latino” from 2012 tackles head on the issue Afro-Latino actors face in Hollywood and provides a fresh perspective seldom written about by the media. The stories are real and at times unsettling.

Afro-Latino actors are ultimately like all other actors who relish playing characters layered with complexities and nuances, which their bi-racial nature allows them the ability to explore. But their opportunities are so few that many times they have to sacrifice a part of their identity in order to advance their careers.

So why can’t Saldana be given a fair chance to interpret an American icon? We can only wait until the movie’s release in theaters on April 22nd. The acting will speak for itself.

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