Actress Zoe Saldana made a pretty bold move when she decided to take on the role of Nina Simone in a biopic about the singer/activist’s life. Nina, written and directed by Cynthia Mort, focuses on a particularly dark period in the singer’s career and gives us a look at her relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson. The decision to accept this role was pretty bold due to the fact that – one, Zoe looks nothing like Nina Simone, two, the filmmakers applied makeup on her face to make her dark-skinned, and three, Zoe fundamentally does not understand who Nina was, and vehemently refuses to rectify that ignorance.
Cynthia Mort, and frankly everyone involved in making this film, is guilty as well. But Zoe continues to voice her opinion on the criticism she, and the movie, has been receiving. Mort did speak with BuzzFeed and talked about how and why Nina pretty much became the failure that it currently is, while also ultimately defending their decision to cast Zoe and move forward with production.
This was 11 years in the making, folks, with the final version of the movie being one that Cynthia Mort did not want released. Almost everything about this project sounds horrible, even if you remove Zoe Saldana as Nina. The film is not being made by Black artists, which is a major problem in and of itself. Yes, you All Lives Matter protesters – race does matter. Especially when you’re talking about someone, a Black woman, who made absolutely sure to never ignore or downplay her Blackness in her music.
Casting Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone was, according to the financiers of the picture, a much safer choice due to the myth that a movie such as this could never be successful without a big name attached to it.
“You would want things to have gone down in a different way,” Mort told BuzzFeed, discussing how difficult it was ignoring Lisa Simone Kelly’s (Nina’s only child) concern over the film. “That’s how she felt. Nobody was sitting around saying, Oh, too bad. It was tough! Tough for Zoe, tough for all of us.”
But you went ahead and made it anyway. You felt that giving Zoe as prosthetic nose and applying makeup to darken her skin was the best way to go. Believe it or not, Cynthia Mort actually thinks of herself as “a radical feminist” who is aware that colorism is an issue, despite everything that I just said. A (white) radical feminist thought it’d be best to be apart of a project with white people telling the story of a Black woman, hiring an actress who looks nothing like Nina Simone and having to apply blackface to try and make up for it.
Everything about this is a complete and utter slap in the face to not only Black people everywhere, but Black women specifically. But go ahead and tout your progressive feminism.
“Listen, what we did was the same as has been done in a hundred movies, and is done all the time,” said Barnaby Thompson, one of the producers on the film, essentially whitesplaining. “It’s hard to answer these questions, because this is a political debate and I’m not a politician, I’m a filmmaker.”
Actually, no, Barnaby, this is not a political issue and I really wish people would stop saying that just to distance themselves from the possibility that they participated in something racist, or blatantly damaging to the Black community.
“I’m not going to deny them their feelings. It’s difficult to know, and I don’t want to be disrespectful,” he said. Then you probably should not have participated in the movie, Barnaby.
“There’s no one way to be black. I’m black the way I know how to be. You have no idea who I am. I am black. I’m raising black men. Don’t you ever think you can look at me and address me with such disdain.”
But I can. Everything you said in this interview is completely disrespectful to Black people as a whole and Black women specifically, along with Nina Simone herself. In fact, some of the things you said were downright disgusting and repulsive. You went on to completely misunderstand one aspect of the criticism, which came down to your physical appearance and the makeup.
“I never saw her as unattractive. Nina looks like half my family!,” you said. “But if you think the [prosthetic] nose I wore was unattractive, then maybe you need to ask yourself, What do you consider beautiful?”
Yeah, see, no, don’t do that. Nice attempt at deflecting, but no. People were not outraged because they thought Nina Simone herself was unattractive, seeing your prosthetic nose and thinking “ew, Nina had an ugly nose!” That wasn’t what they were thinking at all and it’s really terrible for you to try and argue otherwise. It’s very possible that they just thought you looked ridiculous and were horribly upset at the idea that you had to darken your skin to look more like Nina. Considering how dark-skin Black women in Hollywood, and in general, are treated. Something you clearly don’t care about.
“The fact that we’re talking about her, that Nina Simone is trending? We f***ing won. For so many years, nobody knew who the f*** she was. She is essential to our American history. As a woman first, and only then as everything else.”
And there is so much wrong with this statement, I almost don’t know where to begin.
Nina Simone trending online is certainly not more important than blatantly disrespecting her legacy and Black women in America. No one knew who she was? There are millions of people who would completely disagree with that. Zoe must be referring to the average white person in America? I guess. And sadly, there will continue to be people who don’t know who Nina Simone is because they certainly won’t be checking out this movie to learn more about her.
“As a woman first.” Again, this is Zoe saying that Nina’s Blackness was only second to her being a woman. Being a woman is more important. I’m sure she’s very happy about the success the Clinton campaign is having right now. But to lessen Nina Simone’s Blackness in this way is just awful.
Nina openly addressed racism and racial inequality in America in her music and was present at several civil rights meetings and marches. Nina addressed the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. And did so much more.
She cared about her Black people and she loved her Blackness. This was a major part of who she was. “As a woman first”? Zoe, no. Don’t erase her Blackness just because race isn’t something you understand or like talking about. This isn’t an all-you-can-eat buffet where you get to pick and choose what parts of Nina you like and ignore the rest.
This is something that so many Black people in this country actually do care about. There have been others from other races and cultures who have also noted its importance as well. It’s very troubling for you to claim your Blackness as you do, and yet blatantly ignore the hurtful things you say and do, that are actually a detriment to the Black community and Black culture. You imply that no one can challenge or question you. This is a sentiment often shared by allies of Black people who are white.
The same white people who say they are on our side, who say that they help and defend us, yet do not like to be questioned about their commitment or views. “I’m on your side, how dare you question me! I’m trying to help you!” Sure. That does not give you free reign to say and do whatever you want while blatantly ignoring those within that community you claim to care about. You still have to listen. I bring all of that up to say…
Ma’am, you sound like a white woman.
[Image via Suzanne Tenner/Nina Productions LLC]