What Happened, Nina?


The upcoming biopic “Nina,” which tells the story of the late Jazz singer and civil rights activist, Nina Simone, has been receiving heavy criticism.

The controversy surrounding the film started in 2012 when the announcement that Guardians of the Galaxy and Avatar star, Zoe Saldana, would be portraying the iconic soul singer.

Saldana, who is Afro-Latina, has been criticized for accepting the role because of her lack of resemblance to the late Simone. Saldana, who has a much lighter skin complexion than Simone, had to wear cosmetics to darken her skin and prosthetic makeup to broaden her features, such as her nose, during the film which caused many to accuse Saldana of portraying Simone in Black Face.

Not only was Saldana’s appearance a problem, but her lack of musical talent as well; many took to social media to protest the film’s lack of authenticity when it came to portraying Simone, who’s racial identity and physical appearance were vital parts of her career and experiences.

“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, Simone’s only child and the voice of her estate, said in an interview with the New York Times about the casting of Saldana.

The official Twitter account for the estate of Nina Simone responded to a tweet Saldana made quoting Simone on March 1. The tweet said,

“Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”

Family members told Time that a friend had been hired years ago to handle social media and Simone Kelly responded to the backlash Saldana was getting. She blamed the director, Cynthia Mort, for the inaccuracies in the film—which are more than just the alterations they made on Saldana.

“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture…It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies,” Simone Kelly told Time.

Back in 2013 during a pre-oscar event, Saldana responded to all of the negative comments about her playing Simone.

“The reality is what keeps me focused and what kept me from, I guess, getting stressed or being hurt by the comments, is that I’m doing it for my sisters,” she said. “I’m doing it for my brothers. I don’t care who tells me that I am not this and I am not that. I know who I am and I know what Nina Simone means to me. So that is my truth and that set me free.”

Why was Saldana chosen? There are many other talented darker-skinned and musically inclined actresses that resemble Nina Simone more than Saldana; Uzo Auduba, Adepero Oduye and Viola Davis would all have been more qualified for the role and the Film itself would have been saved from a lot of criticism— so why was Saldana cast?

R&B/Soul songstress India.Arie, who many on social media said should have been cast as Simone, wrote an open letter to Simone’s fan site titled “Black(er) face” on the issue ofaltering Saldana’s appearance in the film and spoke to The Hollywood Reporter on the controversy.

“When you think about the way we as human beings can inspire each other by being able to be out authentic selves, to deny someone who looks like Nina Simone the opportunity to play her is sad,” Arie said. “It would have been important and impactful had they made a movie about Nina Simone where the actress really looked like her. It would have changed someone’s life, I think.”

Although many are offended by Saldana’s portrayal of Simone, ultimately, it is the choices the casting directors made in casting Saldana that should get the brunt of the criticisms. Their choices are a reflection of deeper racial issues that are still apparent in the movie industry today.