Another Open Letter About Nina Simone (This One Spits Fire)

By now, we’ve all read at least one angry screed or open letter regarding the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. But just when you thought the topic had been entirely exhausted, here comes Aaron Overfield, the website content manager of NinaSimone.com, with a scathing criticism of writer/director Cynthia Mort, an appeal to the public to put discussions of Saldana’s “blackness” behind them, and a “talk-to-the-hand” rebuke to anyone who espouses the “don’t judge/wait and see/shut up about it” stance on the casting issue.

Says Overfield:

The most frustrating people are the ones who imply everyone should just shut up and “wait and see” or “leave them alone.” That kind of attitude and oppression is not in the spirit of Nina Simone whatsoever. Quite the opposite. Nina was vocal, defiant, a warrior, an activist. She would not have simply shut up and sat down. She would’ve shown up at the studio with a shotgun to speak with Ms. Mort and slapped the makeup off Zoe. So let’s get that straight first. We’re going to talk about this and those of us with strong, impassioned opinions are going to express them.

He goes on to state that, though the film’s production can’t be stopped, its more problematic notions should continue to be highlighted. Among those is the “straightfacing” of an out gay male, Clifton Henderson, who has been previously reported to be written as Nina’s love interest in Mort’s script:

It is also the first instance of Cynthia’s script exploiting a marginalized identity by essentially putting “straightface” on an out gay man. This is rather curious since Mort herself is a lesbian and you’d wonder how she’d feel being rewritten as a heterosexual woman under the guise of someone else’s “artistic license.” Would Cynthia Mort be pleased with someone rewriting her own history to the point where her sexuality becomes a trivialized inconvenience? I guess someone would have to ask her that. I won’t bother.

Welp.

Above all, Overfield takes umbrage with an issue that plagues many biopics, particularly black ones helmed by non-black writers and directors. The idea of buying the rights to someone’s life story, then altering it until it’s unrecognizable just because you can, is one that we should all find unsettling. Beyond casting Zoe Saldana, Cynthia Mort has show a blatant disregard for veracity, when it comes to being the first person to bring a version of Nina Simone’s life to the big screen. As Overfield reminds us, Mort hasn’t fact-checked, consulted Simone’s family, or shown any level of concern for respectfully rendering an icon’s lived experiences–and he believes one thing alone motivates that level of arrogance — privilege:

Cynthia Mort is not a black woman. That is a very crucial point here. I am a white man. I know that as a white man I do not have the authority to speak of the black experience because it is not my experience. I cannot and will not “speak” for black people or assume to know the intricacies of racism, as experienced by black people. The privilege and arrogance it takes to do so is disturbing and downright disgusting.

The entire open letter is certainly worth a read. In conversation with some of the other careful and thought-provoking write-ups on the issue, it leaves no stone of offense unturned.

Are you over the Nina biopic issue yet? Does this open letter re-fuel your anger?