Pictures of Zoe Saldana transformed to resemble Nina Simone via dark makeup, a wooly afro wig and what appears to be a dental implant have sparked new discussions of the coming biopic about the icon. Simone, whose deep brown skin and broad features were an essential element of her message of African-American empowerment, will be played by the much lighter Saldana in Nina, a project slated for release next year.
While Nina Simone sang about with pain of being judged “too dark” according to society’s standards in rich emotional tones in decades past, the casting of the Dominican and Puerto Rican thespian as the musician is seen by some as a similar statement directed towards black actresses today.
Numerous blogs and sites focused on African-American issues have drawn vocal critics of the casting choice, commiserating in the comments over the Columbiana actress being chosen to play the jazz giant.
“The reason this is coming up now is there’s still such a paucity of opportunity for African-American women to work in the cinema that we are quick to scrutinize each individual role,” Vassar College’s film department chair Mia Mask told ABC News. “Here, when we have actresses who look the part and they are still overlooked, it only strengthens the argument that there’s a pattern here.”
Representatives for Ms. Saldana and Cynthia Mort, the director of the project, declined to comment to ABC regarding the controversy. While the two women closest to the project have remained silent, Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, has been very open about her disapproval of Nina — without taking out her anger on Saldana.
“I love Zoe Saldana’s work,” Kelly said in an interview with Ebony.com. “I’ve seen some of her movies more than once and really enjoy what she brings to the screen. As an actress I respect her process, but I also know that there are many actresses out there, known or not, who would be great as my mother. The one actress that I’ve had in my heart for a very long time, whose work I’m familiar with already, is Kimberly Elise. Many people have spoken to me about Viola. I love her look. I love her energy. Both of the actresses that I’ve mentioned are women of color, are women with beautiful, luscious lips and wide noses, and who know their craft.”
Yet, Kelly has been shut out of the production process. The film’s story focuses on a section of the star’s life in which Simone was allegedly romantically involved with her manager and caretaker Clifton Henderson. Nina’s producers have secured the rights to his story, empowering them to create this movie without the input of Simone’s survivors. Simone’s daughter claims that Henderson was gay in opposition to Nina’s plot line, and accuses Mort of unnecessarily changing her mother’s story.
“She has taken my mother’s name and then bought the life rights to her male nurse turned manager, Clifton Henderson’s life,” Kelly explained. “In my opinion, she came in through the back door.”
Mort told The New York Times that Nina is not intended to be a historically accurate biography, but is instead “a love story about an artist’s journey unto herself.”
Hollywood’s black screen sirens have been largely silent. Only Jill Scott, a formidable singer and actress whose name was promoted by many as a better pick than Saldana, has supported her selection openly. In a recent interview with theGrio, Gabrielle Union expressed her feelings about the issue with some ambivalence.
“Zoe as an actress — she’s amazing,” Union expressed about what she described as a “brouhaha.” “I understand that it’s important image-wise to physically capture what Nina Simone looked like really, because that so informs her story. Like when they cast Renee Zellweger as a slave in Cold Mountain – that was a stretch. It impacts the story, and it changes the story into something else. I can understand people being upset. But we can have that conversation civilly and without destroying Zoe, who is a dope, fantastic Morena, who represents in such a huge way for darker-skinned Latinas, but I do understand the need for Nina Simone to be Nina Simone and not re-imagined.”
Is such dissatisfaction weighing on Saldana? She is described as looking “stressed” in the photos that have leaked by celebrity gossip site Bossip. “Do you think the pressure is getting to her with so many naysayers saying she’s all wrong for the film?”
Perhaps this is a sign that it is “time to start showing [Saldana] some support,” the blog opines.
Judgement over whether these images of Zoe respectfully bring Simone to life will linger until Nina is completed. Judging by the driven nature of Mort and her team to complete the film regardless of the public’s opinion, whether it is now time to rally behind Saldana raises an interesting quandary.
Black people fighting over who is too dark or too light — in any context — is against the spirit of Nina Simone’s legacy. And, as movies about complex black women from history as protagonists with meaningful, powerful lives are rare, we may want to start celebrating an effort to uplift Simone’s memory — even if it is rendered imperfectly.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.