Nina + Zoe

From The Grio — For years, filmmaker Cynthia Mort sought to bring Nina Simone’s story to the screen, yet when the door finally opened, a wave of anticipation and controversy mounted before production even began.

The upcoming film Nina, aimed for release this year, will be Mort’s first feature length film project, and the first narrative centered on the famed singer and civil rights activist, played by A-list actress Zoe Saldana.

The choice to cast Saldana stands at the center of a debate over the film. Those displeased with Saldana’s selection have petitioned for Mort to recast the part. Celebrities such as India.ArieAretha Franklin, and even Simone’s daughter (a noted jazz singer) have voiced concerns over the choice.

Critics feel that Saldana does not adequately resemble Simone, who was known for celebrating her strong African features.

Director: Surprised by backlash

Mort is not offended by the backlash, only surprised. She wants the public to give Nina a chance.

“This was a creative endeavor, and to judge and to hijack a creative endeavor before it’s finished is the only thing I take any issue with,” the director told theGrio. ”When it’s done you can say whatever you want.”

Yet, Mort understands the public’s need to share strong emotions about Nina‘s casting. It’s something the diva would have done herself.

“It’s fine. They should,” she said. “Nina was about how you feel. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was about some of the stuff that’s going on, but that’s not my business,” Mort added.

Rehashing the backlash

Nina Simone constantly stressed the beauty of her African attributes, and chronicled her struggle towards accepting that beauty in her work.

With her Dominican and Puerto Rican roots, Saldana’s narrow features and light skin tone require her to use dark makeup and a prosthetic nose to embody the musician.

Some believe these acts contradict Nina Simone’s message as an artist who was outspoken against colorism, discrimination based on skin tone favoring lighter blacks.

As prospects for black actresses with deep brown skin tend to be fewer than for those with paler complexions, some believe that by not selecting a darker actress to play a deep brown woman, this movie hypocritically fails to counter colorism when it would have been the most appropriate to do so.

Acknowledging dissenting voices

Mort acknowledges these voices with sensitivity, but emphasized that her story of Simone is not a “strict biopic.” It is more about the love connection and relationships that fueled her life. For that nuanced portrayal, Saldana was an ideal choice.

“Zoe’s life vision is very clear, and very strong and very direct,” Mort said of Saldana. “She’s a fantastic actress. She’s brave. She’s courageous and she’s super-talented. She’s astonishing in all of her films, which I don’t say lightly. I think Zoe embodies a lot of the characteristics [that] I was looking for. She’s compelling and she’s fierce and she’s strong and she pulls us in the way Nina’s music pulls us in. You know what? That’s hard to come by.”

Addressing critics specifically, Mort said, “What everyone has to remember is that ‘Four Women,’ which everyone has to remember is one of [Nina’s] most powerful songs, is about different shades of four different women.”

Saldana’s tone and our potential acceptance of her tone in this role might be in alignment with Nina’s message of acknowledging the rainbow hues of black women in this song, Mort suggests.

Why Zoe Saldana was the right choice

Mort understands why the color issue is vital, but does not see herself as the spokesperson for that angle of Nina’a story. “So, I don’t want to minimize at all the place Nina holds for many women – women of color, all women, all people, all minorities. But you go with whom you think can best do the performance the role requires.”

Zoe is the best actress for this more emotional performance, Mort believes.

“There are different considerations all the time, but I think Nina’s more than just one thing,” she explained. “She was about not defining people by their color and about being proud, but I don’t want to speak for those things because that’s a very private feeling for people. It’s not up for me to do that.”

Working with a small budget and supported by a determined team, Mort and Saldana seem grateful that the project has at last come to fruition.

“It’s been interesting, but I feel very good about it,” Mort said.

(Continue Reading @ The Grio…)

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  • thinkingcap

    Zoe Saldana is really not that light-skinned, nor does she have narrow features.

    I think we should be honest here. Saldana looks like the average black American woman to me. I’ve seen that face on black Americans plenty of times. I never would have thought she was Latina.

    Nina Simone’s look was extraordinary for a black American. Not many American blacks look like her. After all the race mixing from the past 400 years, many blacks in this country do not have the “strong African features” of Nina Simone.

    Now, I understand this rubs many the wrong way. What does a “typical” black American look like versus a “typical” Latino? It’s a ludicrous question when you consider the diversity found within EACH group.

    I won’t be watching this film anyway. I can’t stand biopics. Documentaries are always so much better.

    • Bottom line: Zoe Saldana looks nothing like Nina Simone. That’s why Saldana has to wear black face and a prosthetic nose to play the part.

      Also, there is no such thing as an average Black American look. Members of the entire African Diaspora are represented here. That is too diverse of a population to state that there is an average black american look.

    • The Other Jess

      I agree, thinking cap. Saldana looks like any regular black girl. She is a regular black girl – just of Latin extraction. I don’t see the big deal, especially since so many famous black americans throughout history have originally had parentage from Latin America and the caribbean. why all the fuss now? it’s a bad look for black people to be up in arms over such nonsense.

    • talaktochoba

      Jess and thinking cap, you really need veto close up the magazines, shut down the DVD and go take a walk in an inner city, then through the Spanish-speaking section;

      then you would know Zoe no more resembles the average black/Spanish-speaking young woman than Cameron Diaz does the average barely black Spanish speaking woman;

      Zoe is a Hollywood creation, a caricature of what white males fantasize all black women look like;

      of course, we all know d**n near EVERY male in the world wet dreams about Serena;

      now why wasn’t she picked to play Nina?

      try tell me THAT movie wouldn’t make MAD BIG MONEY?!!

  • texaschainsawlovin’

    I have been tracking this b.s. of a film since the time it was announced. So here was my reaction to this entire film. Especially with Zoe Saldana as lead role.

    • talaktochoba words could’ve said it better;

  • copelli

    Listen, Zoe is the Hollywood’s “IT girl of color” right now. I am sure the director is just grateful that she could get an actress of her caliber into this film. It’s a relatively small film in comparison to other film budgets that now has a big star attached to it. It will help the bottom line and I am sure it helped in getting the film made. Zoe’s bread & butter at this point.

    Are there brown-skinned actresses out there just as talented as Zoe that could do justice to this role, of course they are. But when was the last time you saw a brown skinned woman (not a man dressed as a woman) as the lead in a non-indie film. I’ll wait…….

    There’s a fracas about this because we don’t very often get films made about us and now you have this opportunity to have this story told about his phenomenal black woman who celebrated and reveled in her beautiful brown being……and a lighter skinned latina is chosen for the role. Sorry, but I would have loved to see a brown-skinned sister given the opportunity to represent on the big screen. Maybe if there were more opportunities for black actresses period, you wouldn’t have as much backlash, but the roles, especially good roles are sparse. And this is a good role.

    • talaktochoba

      copelli, it is not just her features, it is her OJ Simpson ATTITUDE towards black people she clearly wishes to disassociate herself from–the exact antithesis of Nina Simone;

  • Mike

    Nina Simone was NOT a dark skin woman. She was a brown skin woman with African features. If you look at more recent color pictures of her as an older woman you all would know that. Furthermore, her daughter looks to be Bi-racial. I guess you all would also have a problem with her daughter portraying her mom. lol

    • talaktochoba

      um, Mike, you may wish to check on the over-development of the pictures you have because Nina was 110% authentic D&L–that’s Dark and Lovely, Mike;

      like so many entertainers, her sexual appetites were voracious as her performances intense, so it’s surprising only one of her consorts rang her bell;

      does it really matter which one?

      clearly she was satisfied with her lovers, if not her love life–also a familiar theme dating back through so many black female performers even to before Bessie Smith, so we have no reason not to be;

      and from all accounts, she raised a daughter any parent would be proud of, who fights for her mom’s honour to this day;

      first Alicia, now Nina–goodness, Mike, whatcha got against black women, son?

    • Mike

      Go look at the color photos of her. Almost all of them she brown skin

  • Less attention to this train wreck.

    More attention to Taye Hansberry, Numa Perrier, Isae Rae, and Jaleel White’s upcoming Lorraine Hansberry project.

    The Nina Simone biopic won’t have my attention or my dollars.

    • Your Dollars–the only effective way to vote

    • Makro

      Keep that up and their won’t be any movies about blacks