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Before Zoe There Was Fredi… (Movie Makeup History)

Before Zoe There Was Fredi... (Movie Makeup History)

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:

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since the "hook" here is Zoe Saldana (an actress I adored and respected until this extraordinary missstep)…Fredi did not FLOURISH in film as a result of her lighter complexion. She needed to darken up to work whereas Zoe had absolutely had a broader career because of her ambiguity.

For me in relation to the Nina Simone role, the biggest problem is not JUST complexion. Nina wrote her songs and had a specific view of herself in relation to life and LOVE as a result of her physicality. Not merely her color…but her features and bone structure in a society that was not, and in many ways is still now, ready to embrace and assure beauty. Zoe would need to get an entire surgical makeover to disguise her delicate and perfect bone structure. We're not just talking Nicole Kidman with a prosthetic nose playing Virginia Woolf here.


Good catch Sergio. Your mention of Fredi Washington, and both versions of Imitation of Life, highlights, as someone said "Eighty years later we are still dealing with the complexion issue" and "The burden of representation". First, it's important to note that Susan Kohner was not a "white actress" per-se, her parents ( Mother, Lupita Tovar) was from Mexico and her father was born in the Czech Republic. Susan's brother's name is Pancho. In respect to Fredi Washington, it's been said that she actually left the movie business because of the "politics" (black and white) and the types of roles she was being offered. She went on to be an advocate for women's rights. In reference to the 1959 version of "Imitation", as I mentioned in another post, I recently watched it (last week). It had bonus features which included an interview of Juanita Moore, the black actress who received an Oscar nomination for her role as Annie Johnson, Peola's mother. Two things of note, in the original 1934 version, Annie Johnson was actually the business partner of the lead character. In the 1959 film, she was simply the maid. Hmmm, why the change? Well, in my opinion, aside from the fact that the film was a starring vehicle for the return of Lana Turner, the topics of race and politics were at a new threshold in the 50's. Consequently, black "images", as they are today, were being used to fit those in power. Yes, a huge topic for discussion, today and yesterday. Anyway, Juanita Moore said for 2 years she didn't get another offer from Hollywood, and thus, her words: "I had to go back to the chitlin circuit"


Same casting standards as today. smh

Ivory Jeff Clinton

The change in complexion is not drastic in Saldana's case. Fredi Washington was very light. Saldana is not. Actually, by old-school, "Our Kind of People," brown-paper-bag standards, her complexion at all. Come to think of it, a cover story on her in Latina magazine described her skin-tone as "chocolate" — and I'm sure it didn't mean white chocolate. I think her long, straight hair and the fact that she's a Latina — which, as has been pointed out on this site, is an ethnicity and not a race — makes people see her as fairer-skinned than she really is. It "scores" her "light-skinned points," as a friend of mine says. Kinda the way some have the misperception of Halle Berry, who's actually medium-toned and just-barely-light, as being light, bright and damn near white because she happens to have a white mother. –


Eighty years later we are still dealing with the complexion issue where a light complexion Black woman is more employable in Hollywood than her darker complexion sister, even if her lighter skin has to be darkened.

What is so ironic in this situation of using Ms. Zaldana to portray the iconic Nina Simone, is that dark complexion Nina forced people to deal with and appreciate the beauty of a dark complexion woman with African features. Besides her incredible voice, this is the most lasting imprint of the Nina Simone legacy!


I can appreciate you trying to draw parallels between the two, however Fredi Washington was not portraying, let say, Ethel Waters or even Josephine Baker. Nice try though.

Adam Scott Thompson

I recognize her from "Imitation." Undine… a water elemental — clever. Meanwhile, I feel like Robeson should have streets named after him in every major city — like MLK.


I loved that "Peola" role. I'd love to see more of her work. It's a shame so many like her never achieved greater success.

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