The first look at the upcoming Nina Simone biopic is out, and it’s reigniting objections to a light-skinned actress playing the dark-skinned civil rights activist and jazz singer.
Criticism has dogged “Nina” since news broke in 2012 that actress Zoe Saldana, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, would play the woman known to fans as the High Priestess of Soul. Because much of Simone’s work centered on her marginalized treatment as a dark-skinned black woman in America, fans said the casting choice was an affront to her legacy.
After filmmakers released the trailer and announced an April 22 release date this week, Simone’s estate forcefully weighed in, leaving little doubt as to how its members felt.
“Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life,” the official Twitter account for Simone’s estate said in a tweet directed at Saldana on Thursday, followed by a general statement on the controversy.
“Hopefully people begin to understand this is painful. Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, nauseating, soul-crushing. It shall pass, but for now…”
The estate’s reaction should come as little surprise to anyone who’s been following the controversy. The casting has been the subject of infuriated columns and blog posts, boycott calls and even an online petition for a casting change. Singer Mary J. Blige was reportedly set to play the role until she had to bow out for scheduling reasons.
Simone’s daughter, actress and singer Lisa Simone Kelly, disavowed the film in 2012, telling The New York Times that she respected Saldana but did not feel she was the right choice to play her mother, given Simone’s appearance and worldview.
Much of the backlash has to do with Simone’s place in history. Simone, who died in 2003 at 70, combined blues, folk and jazz and blues to deliver her singular sultry style. She was also known for her bombastic, defiant persona as a fixture of the 1960s civil rights movement.
In addition to hit renditions of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” she composed songs that addressed racist treatment of African-Americans. She wrote “Mississippi Goddam” after the killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, while her “Four Women” described the experiences of four women of different skin tones.
The controversy plays into broader discussions about diversity in Hollywood and the tendency to “whitewash” biopics, especially when they involve people of color, by casting actors who conform to white and European beauty standards.
“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” Kelly told the New York Times in 2012. “Appearance-wise, this is not the best choice.”
The furor only got worse with each sneak peek of the film showing Saldana in dark makeup.
“Nina Simone didn’t write ‘Four Women’ to have her actual skin color demeaned for a movie about her life. Come on now,” feminist writer Mikki Kendall said on Twitter.
The release of the biopic’s trailer on Wednesday renewed criticism that Saldana is not the right choice, despite early praise for the emotional range she appears to bring to the role.
Fans suggested other women to play the role, including singers Lauryn Hill and India Arie or actresses Viola Davis, Danai Gurira and Leslie Jones.
RLJ Entertainment, the film’s distributor, is standing by Saldana. In a statement from founder Robert L. Johnson, also the founder of Black Entertainment Television, he urged viewers to judge Saldana based on her talent.
“Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone. She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent. The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness,” he said.
“Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance.”
Saldana has stood by the performance, urging the public to withhold judgment. Without commenting directly on the latest round of withering criticism, on Tuesday night she tweeted a quote from Simone:
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear. I mean really, no fear.”
Saldana’s tweet prompted Simone’s estate to respond with its withering retort about keeping Simone’s name out of her mouth. Earlier in the week, the estate urged fans to boycott the film and host their own Nina Simone listening and viewing parties.
“We can use this date as another opportunity to celebrate Nina’s life and music. Let’s create a positive from a negative by coming together and acknowledging the authentic Nina Simone. Nothing can diminish Nina or her legacy. No one can rob Nina of her gift — or rob us of the gift she shared with us,” the estate said in a Facebook post.
“On April 22nd, let’s allow the real NINA SIMONE the freedom to speak (and play and sing) for herself.”