Transforming Authenticity

What is authenticity?

One of my Osage relatives said that when he was being instructed in dance he asked his elder over and over again if he was doing it correctly.

“Is this right?”

Finally the elder looked my relative in the eye and said: “Are you Osage?”

The reply was, yes.

“Then you’re doing it right.”

Sometimes we define for ourselves what constitutes authenticity. But when I hear authenticity defined in popular culture, I’m uncomfortable.

I heard a discussion this week about authenticity. Seems some folks are upset that Zoe Saldana was tapped to play singer Nina Simone.

Saldana is reportedly of Dominican and Puerto Rican ancestry and some roil at the prospect of her playing North Carolina-born Simone.

For years American Indians have been played by non-Indians on stage, television and movies, and now it’s treated as a joke to see Chuck Connors in the role of Geronimo.

But when an actor we love—such as Johnny Depp—plays an Indian, we’re a little more charitable.

At what point is a person’s heritage pivotal in the role she or he plays?

Daniel Day-Lewis’ heritage is miles apart from Abraham Lincoln’s. But his superb acting is captivating audiences as the 16th president.

We are more forgiving with folks we find endearing. And we are more forgiving in Lincoln’s case because “whiteness” seems homogenous.

While we prefer that Tonto is played by an Indian and Nina Simone is inhabited by an African American, the issue of appearance—phenotype—seems less important than the quality of the acting.

Folks are twitterpated that Saldana lacks Simone’s phenotype and genotype but have no issues with Day Lewis as Lincoln.

White is seen as color-less. Without race. Same genes.

Black is seen as full of color, race and genes.

And thus authenticity gets defined by DNA.

[Blog 14 of Native American Heritage Month. I pledge one blog each day.]


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, cinema, Geronimo, Indian, journalism, native american, Native Science, Osage and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Transforming Authenticity

  1. ashanam says:

    I don’t know anyone who wasn’t appalled by Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t appalled at the idea that Tonto was being resurrected at all. That character may have been acceptable and palatable at one time, but it no longer is. Some stories really should die natural deaths. You raise some very good points in your post, but no one should play Tonto again. Ever.


  2. There are folks who are clueless about what is offensive with mascots a case in point.


  3. Conover says:

    Just read your blog. Your comments about color seem odd in that white is a combination of all colors and black is a color in its self. Dad


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