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.


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? 

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  • ms_micia

    Only way to truly get through to folks is to not support it. period.

  • Vernon Butler

    Where does one begin? As a person who met Ms Simone when I was a teenager, in a meeting on CR funding for Dr King, before her music, was her commitment to the struggle of people of African decent in America. That is her legacy. Her commitment to live her life, on her terms has always been self evident. Her contemporaries, in the early years of the struggle, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Dorthey Dandridge, Sydney Portier and many others, fought and suffered for their rights as actors, to demand integrity and truth in the roles they portrayed; and many refused to chase the money and acclaim being offered, even though they had a child on the way, or was homeless.

    When I studied acting in the 60s, in Chicago, I was told that an actor has an obligation to be aware of the importance of the images you portray. As people of African decent, in America, we were/are obliged to Own and Shepard the use of our likeness, our image, our-story vs their desire to capitalize on their history, of us.

    The shame is that no blacks in the bussieness, even thought to do the things necessary to hold the rights of Nina’s story and the stories of many others of our hidden and near forgotten heroes. This is a teachable moment. One that we, as a people have had countless times before, in my brief 62 years. This is H’wood/B’way at its best…make money at all cost…and we, desiring the myth of america…run, fight after, disparage and envy those that have the fame and spotlight. We hold in esteem, those that have achieved that platu, yet those that work that 9-5…garbage men, bus drivers, taxi drivers, cooks, clerks are given little respect in the here and now.

    The issue of Zoe? Is the same as if they could have hired Mike Duncan to play Richard Pryor. Casting NO one would believe. That is not an issue of Zoe…that is the issue of the writer/director. In this case, who never consulted the family, and has written a fanticy “bio-pic” that is all about herself. Understand that the writer/director is female, and though privileged and Anglo,…she knows the issues of female self image…though not from the perspective of Women of color. And though Zoe, as an actor has opted to do something I would have refused to do…as an actor I understand, though disagreeing with her choice…I understand, and do not blame her, if there is to be any blame, it is of my generation who bowed out for the money, and forgot to pass on the legacy that was/is the Black Arts Movement…that taught many to always respect your people as you respect your self. Anon Ashanti

    “We must lead children from images that promote ignorance, and celebrate that which leads to knowledge.” – Plato