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Nina Simone film sparks heated debate about colorism in Hollywood

The film has been a lightning rod since it was first announced in 2012 that Zoe Saldana had been cast as the influential soul singer.
An undated portrait of Nina Simone. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty)
An undated portrait of Nina Simone. 

The long delayed and controversial Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana is finally going to arrive in theaters, and with its debut comes an intense debate about colorism and representation in the shadow of #OscarsSoWhite.

The film, entitled “Nina,” has been a lightning rod since it was first announced in 2012 that Saldana had been cast as the influential soul singer. Fans were apoplectic over the news that Saldana, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage but also identifies as black, was chosen over several other qualified actresses who better resemble the dark-skinned Simone. When it was revealed later that Saldana would be performing the role in makeup to darken her skin and apparently prosthetics to broaden her features, the outrage grew even louder, but producers stuck by her and the project.

This week, audiences got their first look at a trailer for the troubled production, and the backlash was swift on social media. “It looks even worse than I imagined, and Zoe’s performance ain’t worth a lick nor does it redeem that horrific makeup job we initially saw in pics. Now I’m mad all over again,” wrote Luvvie Ajayi for theGrio on Thursday. The complaints about the casting choice have been consistent for four years: darker-skinned actresses like Adepero Oduye, Danai Gurira and Viola Davis would all have been better suited for the role; the use of prosthetics to give Saldana a more stereotypically black appearance is offensive; Saldana’s lack of musical talent (she appears to lip sync in the film) undercuts the rationale for her casting; and Simone’s look and racial identity were vital parts of her persona that cannot be diminished.

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“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise this is not the best choice,” Lisa Simone Kelly, the late singer’s only child and the voice of her estate, told the New York Times about Saldana's casting back in 2012.

Cynthia Mort, who wrote and directed the film, has since left the project and sued the production company behind it in 2014. Still, she has defended the casting choice. “I wish the movie well,” Mort told Entertainment Weekly recently.“There are very different visions of what the movie could have been and should have been. Other than that, I think Zoe was amazing ... and I’m proud of a lot of the movie.”

RLJ Entertainment, which is distributing “Nina,” added in a statement from its founder Robert L. Johnson: “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. Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance."

Ironically, Saldana's best known roles in blockbuster films like "Avatar" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" have rendered her almost unrecognizable through motion-capture CGI or heavy makeup. Meanwhile, Saldana has also defended her decision to take on the role in the past. She told Monarch magazine in 2014, “Just like everybody else, I feel very strongly about Nina Simone, and that [this] was a story that needed to be told. I do believe that if everybody had more information about how this all came to be, it might help; but then again, I’m not here to get the acceptance of everyone — I’m here to be an artist first. Hopefully, people will enjoy the film and I helped shed some light on this amazing icon.” The year before she told Allure: "It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it, I will honor and respect my black community because that’s who I am.” 

When the trailer was released, she tweeted a Simone quote, which appeared to be aimed at her critics: "I'll tell you what freedom is to me — No Fear ... I mean really, no fear. #NinaSimone

Simone Kelly slammed Saldana hard for that tweet, replying on her mother's estate's account: "@zoesaldana Cool story but please take Nina's name out your mouth. For the rest of your life." She added later: "Hopefully people begin to understand this is painful. Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, nauseating, soul-crushing. It shall pass, but for now ..." Simone Kelly has thrown her weight behind the Oscar-nominated documentary about her mother "What Happened, Miss Simone?," which is currently streaming on Netflix.

Meanwhile, the trailer’s release has touched a broader nerve since it comes on the heels of a heated debate in Hollywood about diversity in the movies. For second year in a row, the Academy Awards failed to nominate a single actor of color, and several studies have shown that women of color in particular have historically been marginalized when it comes to opportunities to land major speaking roles in Hollywood productions. And Saldana's casting represents one of several recent examples of a biracial or lighter-skinned actress being cast in roles written for a historic figure or character who is supposed to be of a darker hue.

A biopic on the life of Nina Simone provided a unique opportunity for a major film headlined by a dark-skinned black actress, and there are many who feel this chance has been squandered.

“I have great respect for Zoe Saldana and her body of work. However, the choice to cast her in the role of Nina Simone could only have been made by people who made little attempt to understand the complexities of colorism. It speaks to the binary lens through which black people are routinely viewed, rather than the multitudes we truly contain,” Daily Beast editor at large Goldie Taylor told MSNBC on Friday. “Simone deserved the same level of authenticity that she flung out into the world. Anything less is a betrayal.”

However, there are some who think the controversy is much ado about nothing. On Thursday, “Trainwreck” director Judd Apatow weighed in on the controversy, sarcastically tweeting: “I think all actors should only be allowed to play themselves. It is offensive to pretend to be other people.” Apatow's tweet brought strong rebukes and accusations of white privilege, with more than a few social media users arguing that the filmmaker was missing the point:

Still, if there is a silver lining for Saldana, she could look to the initial backlash in some quarters of the black community to the casting of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's seminal 1992 biopic of the black Muslim leader. Some critics complained that Washington was far too dark-skinned and bore little resemblance to the civil rights icon, only to quiet down once his Oscar-nominated performance was widely hailed as one of the best of the decade.

Also, amid a racially contentious presidential race, one could argue that there are bigger battles to fight.

"Here we have a major crisis brewing in the country with Trump and his hordes running amok and threatening every right and liberty blacks fought hard for and won over the last half-century. And we're worrying about some actress in a movie wearing bad makeup," author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson told MSNBC on Friday. "I'm absolutely floored with the things that black folk get in a tizzy about. Talk about misplaced priorities."

"Nina," which has provoked a petition demanding a casting change and calling for a boycott, will hit theaters on April 22.