The Nina Simone Biopic Casting Controversy

September 6, 2013
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Finally the Nina Simone story will be brought to the big screen. Filmmaker Cynthia Mort’s film Nina will open to anticipation and controversy that started way before production of the movie began. Simone, known as the “High Priestess of Soul ”was famous from the 1950s through the ’70s for her music and her civil rights activism. And although she died in 2003, her voice remains popular on TV, movie soundtracks and commercials.

The decision to cast A-list American Actress Zoe Saldana in the biopic is the center of the backlash. Originally, hip-hop diva Mary J. Blige was slated to star in the film (about 6 years ago), but she dropped out last year after shooting was delayed. Saldana’s (a long-legged willowy gorgeous Afro-Latina) movie filmography includes, Drumline, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Star Trek, Avatar and Columbiana. The majority of the controversy involves Saldana’s physical beauty relative to Simone’s physical beauty. Saldana’s keen features and café au lait complexion are very close to Hollywood’s typical standard. Simone herself — born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, N.C. — often said in interviews that Hollywood penalizes dark-skinned female artists for their hue.

Her daughter, actress Simone Kelly, told The New York Times that the singer often said she’d like Whoopi Goldberg to portray her if a movie was ever made. She even asked Facebook fans their thoughts and most of them were negative. However she says that the project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate. Simone Kelly said the actress she had in her heart was Kimberly Elise, but she also said she had no problem bringing in an unknown to play her mother.

Many people posted angry comments on YouTube and Twitter expressing their dissatisfaction with Saldana being cast in the role. Erica Renee is one of several angry posters on YouTube who believes the choice of Saldana is incorrect. “It’s like super-disrespectful to cast an ethnically ambiguous person to portray a woman who battled the industry’s distaste for her dark skin, and her natural hair and her thick features,” she says in one of her videos.

Lanita Jacobs who teaches anthropology at the University of Southern California, often lectures on how African-Americans are portrayed in film and on television. Jacobs says casting the fair-skinned Saldana, then darkening her with makeup and giving her a prosthetic nose and an Afro wig, is particularly offensive to women who have had to struggle with acceptance because of their own dark complexions.

“We understand that there are these beauty issues,” Jacobs says, “and sometimes what sanctions people’s right to speak on these kind of issues is whether they have had experiences born of what it means to have kinky hair, or to have wide noses or darker skin. Nina’s music taps into a certain kind of awareness born of the way she looks.”

The social website Change.org circulated a petition asking director Cynthia Mort to rethink the casting of Saldana in the title role. Petitioners said this isn’t a diss of Saldana and her considerable talent, but a request for someone who more closely mirrors Simone’s actual looks.

Some of the movie’s black critics have already said they won’t go to see it when it’s finished, both because of the casting decision and because the Simone family was not consulted. But many swore they’d boycott another movie they believed did a disservice to how black women are perceived — and then turned out to see The Help in droves.

Zoe Comments

th-6(1)Zoe Saldana experienced the backlash first hand from the moment she was cast in the role. She knew anyone playing Nina Simone on the big screen was bound to face some criticism. In a recent interview with Latina magazine, the 34-year-old actress responds to the criticism that she isn’t “black or curvy enough” to play Simone. “People are going to want to outcast you and put you someplace and it’s like, you can have any opinion about it, and that is fine, as long as you understand that it’s going to come second to how I feel about myself,” she said.

When asked if those adamantly wanting her not to play the role ever make her want to quit? Saldana said “That would not have been fair, I was already a part of this project and my priority was Nina, and the love that I feel for this woman, for her music and what she left us. Let’s all give ourselves a chance to watch it and then make a decision.”

In the meantime, Saldana isn’t going to let others’ negative opinions keep her from living her life. “Life isn’t just happy, happy, happy. Give me all of it! In order for me to keep growing and learning, I have to participate in life,” she said. “I have to sacrifice. I have to expose myself. I have to be open, because then when it’s good, the rewards are unbelievable. And when it’s bad, it’s not that I enjoy it, but I feel what I’m living. That’s my motto: just be wide awake.

Photos leaked

Last month, the first photo of Saldana on the set of the biopic “Nina” leaked. Saldana could be seen “wearing an Afro wig and what appears to be a prosthetic nose and skin-darkening makeup” to look more like Simone. Neo-Soul Singer India.Arie is the latest person to be quite vocal regarding Saldana’s casting as Nina Simone. The “Video” singer launched into a lengthy rant on Simone’s official website saying that people had been asking her about a movie about the late singer and civil rights activist. Arie said she reserved judgment when she learned about Saldana’s casting, but had to speak out when she saw the images that had surfaced of Saldana as Simone. Arie believes that there should be a movie made and someone should have been chosen that looks like Nina Simone.

th-10She said: “Her RACE played such a PIVOTAL role in WHO, WHAT and WHY, she was. THAT ASIDE for a second, this just looks WEIRD, it looks like a person in Black(er) face with a fake nose … REALLY?!!!! DOES NOT THE ONE NINA SIMONE’S LEGACY DESERVE BETTER THAN THIS? If they were going to pick a person who looks NOTHING like Nina Simone … why not her daughter Simone *shrug* just saying …” Arie also went on to say that she hoped through Saldana’s “obvious admiration of Nina, that [she] can pull off the portrayal ENERGETICALLY …” The 37-year-old singer said the images of Saldana made her sad as they felt out of place with what Simone meant in an African American historical context. She admitted that she had always been open to playing Simone — and that she is “clearly Nina Simone’s Physical Heir Apparent” — but that didn’t mean she should have played her. Arie ended by saying she thought Viola Davis should play Simone.

The director’s hopes for “Nina”

For her directorial debut, 56-yr-old Mort (who just happens to be actress Jodie Foster’s ex-girlfriend of 14 yrs) does not want to take on the entire legacy of Nina Simone. She only wants to illustrate an important facet of it that everyone can relate to, which also shaped her artistry indelibly: her little-known love life. Mort worked as a writer for the television series Roseanne for three years and wrote an episode for Will and Grace.

“In an interview, a version of which we used, Nina said, ‘Sometimes people forget that I’m a woman, and I sing as many love songs as I do,’ and I think that’s a really important quote,” Mort explained. “Her civil rights stance comes from not only her uncompromising belief in civil rights, and her belief in strength and power for everyone, but I think it also comes […] from a need to be heard, and a need to be seen and the power of words, which she took very seriously, which you hear in all of her music. And I think that’s a very interesting quality.”

Mort stresses that the movie does not reveal all the days, nights, laughter, tears and turmoil that brought Simone to the forefront of the music business and Civil Rights Movement. Instead, it serves as a window capturing moments that empowered her heart.

“I like a lot of things that [the film] says about being an artist, about being a woman, about that brilliance, about love,” Mort mused. “It’s clearly not a biopic as much as I think Nina Simone is amazing… I liked her life. I liked what she stood for. I liked that she’s uncompromising… I was taking on something else that I felt was universal to everybody. That doesn’t take anything away from who she is or who she was.

“I hope people see Nina,” Mort affirmed. “I hope they see her heart and her soul.”

Through the Eyes of the Black Community

Nevertheless the African American community concern surrounding Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone in the upcoming Biopic is warranted, yet a bit hypocritical. Where was this uproar when Kerry Washington was playing Kay Amin or Jennifer Hudson was playing Winnie Mandela?

The way in which Hollywood chooses to portray people of African descent is a real issue. But we must view this problem equally when an African American actress is hired to play roles that disenfranchise the upward mobility of African actresses. However, people are feeling some kind of way about her playing the role in what some could call “black face“. Many said the decision was a typically craven attempt to cast a more traditionally beautiful, ‘marketable’ actress in a role, despite the fact that Nina Simone wasn’t traditionally beautiful or ‘marketable’ is such an important part of her story.

As an actress, all Saldana can do is commit to the role. Maybe she will blow audiences away.



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