As a trivia follow-up to those new pictures of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, a commenter asked if there was a precedent for this – that is, putting a black actress in dark makeup and prosthetics to play a black woman.
Tambay also asked Emmanuel and I if we knew of such an example, and the only one I could think of, without the prosthetics however, was Fredi Washington in Paul Robeson’s 1933 film The Emperor Jones.
Washington, who died in 1994 at the age of 90, was one of those many black actresses who never found any real place or real lasting success in Hollywood. During her brief time as a Hollywood actress, she appeared in only a few films, the most famous of which was her role as Peola Johnson in the 1934 film, Imitation of Life, in which she plays Louise Beaver’s daughter who passes for white.
Ironically, in the more well-known 1959 remake of the film, the role of the daughter, renamed Sarah, was played by white actress, Susan Kohner.
But in Jones, Washington has the small role of Undine, a character who has an affair with Robeson’s Brutus. However, she was so light-skinned that the producers actually darkened her skin in the film, for fear that audiences might mistake her for a white woman who’s involved with Robeson, obviously a black man.
Take a look at Washington in the film: