Nina Simone biopic director, producers stand by casting Zoe Saldana in title role

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Zoe Saldana

Zoe Saldana and Nina Simone. (Photos: Getty Images)

For years, filmmaker Cynthia Mort sought to bring Nina Simone’s story to the screen, yet when the door finally opened, a wave of anticipation and controversy mounted before production even began.

The upcoming film Nina, aimed for release this year, will be Mort’s first feature length film project, and the first narrative centered on the famed singer and civil rights activist, played by A-list actress Zoe Saldana.

The choice to cast Saldana stands at the center of a debate over the film. Those displeased with Saldana’s selection have petitioned for Mort to recast the part. Celebrities such as India.ArieAretha Franklin, and even Simone’s daughter (a noted jazz singer) have voiced concerns over the choice.

Critics feel that Saldana does not adequately resemble Simone, who was known for celebrating her strong African features.

Director: Surprised by backlash

Mort is not offended by the backlash, only surprised. She wants the public to give Nina a chance.

“This was a creative endeavor, and to judge and to hijack a creative endeavor before it’s finished is the only thing I take any issue with,” the director told theGrio. “When it’s done you can say whatever you want.”

Yet, Mort understands the public’s need to share strong emotions about Nina‘s casting. It’s something the diva would have done herself.

“It’s fine. They should,” she said. “Nina was about how you feel. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was about some of the stuff that’s going on, but that’s not my business,” Mort added.

Rehashing the backlash

Nina Simone constantly stressed the beauty of her African attributes, and chronicled her struggle towards accepting that beauty in her work.

With her Dominican and Puerto Rican roots, Saldana’s narrow features and light skin tone require her to use dark makeup and a prosthetic nose to embody the musician.

Some believe these acts contradict Nina Simone’s message as an artist who was outspoken against colorism, discrimination based on skin tone favoring lighter blacks.

As prospects for black actresses with deep brown skin tend to be fewer than for those with paler complexions, some believe that by not selecting a darker actress to play a deep brown woman, this movie hypocritically fails to counter colorism when it would have been the most appropriate to do so.

Acknowledging dissenting voices

Mort acknowledges these voices with sensitivity, but emphasized that her story of Simone is not a “strict biopic.” It is more about the love connection and relationships that fueled her life. For that nuanced portrayal, Saldana was an ideal choice.

“Zoe’s life vision is very clear, and very strong and very direct,” Mort said of Saldana. “She’s a fantastic actress. She’s brave. She’s courageous and she’s super-talented. She’s astonishing in all of her films, which I don’t say lightly. I think Zoe embodies a lot of the characteristics [that] I was looking for. She’s compelling and she’s fierce and she’s strong and she pulls us in the way Nina’s music pulls us in. You know what? That’s hard to come by.”

Addressing critics specifically, Mort said, “What everyone has to remember is that ‘Four Women,’ which everyone has to remember is one of [Nina’s] most powerful songs, is about different shades of four different women.”

Saldana’s tone and our potential acceptance of her tone in this role might be in alignment with Nina’s message of acknowledging the rainbow hues of black women in this song, Mort suggests.

Why Zoe Saldana was the right choice

Mort understands why the color issue is vital, but does not see herself as the spokesperson for that angle of Nina’a story. “So, I don’t want to minimize at all the place Nina holds for many women – women of color, all women, all people, all minorities. But you go with whom you think can best do the performance the role requires.”

Zoe is the best actress for this more emotional performance, Mort believes.

“There are different considerations all the time, but I think Nina’s more than just one thing,” she explained. “She was about not defining people by their color and about being proud, but I don’t want to speak for those things because that’s a very private feeling for people. It’s not up for me to do that.”

Working with a small budget and supported by a determined team, Mort and Saldana seem grateful that the project has at last come to fruition.

“It’s been interesting, but I feel very good about it,” Mort said.

All press is good press, says producer — so keep talking

Executive-produced by Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, Shady Records’ head Paul Rosenberg, and film veteran Gene Kirkwood, Nina will focus on Simone’s growth as an artist as it parallels her music.

As Kirkwood sees it, the movie will likely benefit from the negative attention Saldana’s casting has spawned.

“Every knock is a boost for me,” Kirkwood told theGrio. Kirkwood has also produced Rocky, Get Rich or Die Tryin,’ and New York, New York, among other films.

“People don’t like anything. If Jesus Christ walked in here right now, they’d say, ‘Great carpenter, but terrible guy.’ They’ll find something about everything. There’s nothing positive until they see it,” he said. “Diana Ross was as close to Billie Holiday as you can get, but when [Lady Sings the Blues] came out, they were worried about that[.] With Rocky they said, ‘Who wants to see a fight movie?’ You had to get them in there. There was only one fight in the whole movie. The picture is eventually going to have to make its own track no matter what. But I think every knock is a boost, as long as they’re talking about it.”