Zoe Saldana’s Skin Color Just One Misstep In Troubled Nina Simone Biopic

Zoe Saldana has an ugly spot on her otherwise white-hot career. How ugly depends on who you ask.

Social media erupted in a flurry of anger and confusion last week when a trailer for Zoe Saldana’s next film, Nina, hit the internet. Nina follows the life of legendary jazz pianist and singer Nina Simone. To step into Nina Simone’s shoes, Zoe Saldana donned a prosthetic nose and makeup to darken her skin. Fans of Nina Simone condemned Saldana’s casting.

Outsiders expressed confusion over the outrage. Director Judd Apatow expressed his confusion in a sarcastic tweet.

Apatow’s tweet came after the official Nina Simone twitter, operated by a friend of the Simone family responded negatively to a tweet made by Zoe Saldana. In Saldana’s initial tweet, she quotes Nina Simone.

At face value, it may seem that Apatow and his supporters have a point. Zoe Saldana is a black woman of Hispanic descent, which in the minds of many makes as qualified as any African-American actress to play the part of Nina Simone. So why all the anger over her casting?

The answer, like all things involving legends, is complicated.

Would 'Nina' have been better if Mary J. Blige kept the part?
[Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Jason Merritt/Getty Images]
According to NPR, the role of Nina Simone originally went to hip-hop diva Mary J. Blige. But a series of shooting delays forced Blige to give up the part to Zoe Saldana. To be fair, while she is darker than Zoe Saldana, Mary J. Blige has a lighter complexion than Nina Simone. It’s possible that the confusing decision to use darkening makeup and a prosthetic nose would still have been made if she played Nina Simone.

Which raises the question: is the appearance of the actress so important to their portrayal of a particular role? In the case of Nina Simone, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Behind the soul-wrenching ballads and sometimes violent outbursts, there was a history of pain. Pain that resonates all too well with the African-American community today. Simone often spoke in interviews about how Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general penalize dark-skinned female artists. Decades after the height of Nina Simone’s fame, little seems to have changed. Even when a darker actress would visually be perfect for the part.

Nina Simone’s brother, Sam Waymon, shares in fan’s outrage. According to TMZ, Waymon likened Saldana’s casting and makeup to “raping Nina’s legacy.”

Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, was quick to absolve Zoe Saldana of any guilt. According to Rolling Stone, the Nina biopic has bigger problems than which actress is portraying Nina Simone. A major part of Nina is the relationship between Nina Simone and her assistant, Clifton Henderson. It’s the kind of love story often at the center of Hollywood biopics. But in this case, it’s a love story that never happened. According to Simone Kelly, Clifton Henderson was gay.

“The project has been tainted from the very beginning. Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life and everyone now knows that. This is not how you want your loved ones remembered.”

Because the script, written and directed by Cynthia Mort, didn’t focus on the reality of Nina Simone’s life, her estate refused to be part of it or endorse it. In fact, Nina Simone’s estate refused to endorse Nina when Mary J. Blige was attached to play the title role.

Cynthia Mort doesn’t want to take on the tainted legacy of Nina either. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Mort filed a lawsuit in 2014 against Ealing Studios Enterprises Limited. Mort claimed that the producers took over Nina during post production in violation of her director deal.

The Nina Simone biopic was troubled from the beginning.
[Photo by Larry Ellis/Getty Images]
Nina should be the story of a woman’s struggles to express her art and live her life on her own terms. Instead, it’s become another example of how the Hollywood machine doesn’t get the black community and often doesn’t care to. That seems a poor end to such potential glory.

[Photo by Monty Fresco/Getty Images]

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