The Problems With the New Nina Simone Biopic Go Way Beyond Zoe Saldana

The first trailer and poster for Nina, the long-gestating feature film project that fictionalizes the life story of Nina Simone, were released yesterday, and they weren’t pretty. Both feature Zoe Saldana, an American actress of Dominican descent, wearing an afro wig and prosthetic makeup, in an attempt to make her look more like Simone. After Saldana tweeted a photo of Simone with a quote attributed to her, the singer’s estate — which has long voiced its disapproval of the project — used the opportunity to throw salt at the actress, whose casting they disapproved of.

Nina Simone. Photo by Oscar C. Williams / Shutterstock.com
Nina Simone. Photo by Oscar C. Williams / Shutterstock.com

Over at The Root, Damon Young wrote a good summary of why people might be mad at the film’s Latin American director, Cynthia Mort, for casting Zoe Saldana, or at Saldana herself for taking the role. In essence, it’s not that Saldana’s blackness should be questioned, but rather that, because so much of Simone’s life experiences and work were related to the fact that she didn’t fit in with Western standards of beauty, to cast a fair-skinned actress and paint her up to look more African is offensive. Saldana is literally wearing a mask, one that conjures memories of minstrel shows and racist depictions of African phenotypes from years past — one that would have been unnecessary with different casting.

So, while the Simone estate’s tweet seems a bit harsh, it’s understandable that people might be upset by the poster, the trailer, and the film. But the issues with how Nina came about extend far beyond melanin and phenotypes. Let’s take a look at some of the problems that plague the project:

Zoe Saldana didn’t initially think she was right for the role.

When she was first approached to do the film, Saldana had doubts about her fit:

“I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either. An artist is colorless, genderless… It’s more complex than just ‘Oh, you chose the Halle Berry look-alike to play a dark, strikingly beautiful, iconic black woman.’ The truth is, they chose an artist who was willing to sacrifice herself. We needed to tell her story because she deserves it.”

The quote, from a July 2015 InStyle cover story, illustrates just how clueless Saldana and her camp were when fielding the offer. It’s not hard to imagine their thoughts turning to gold statuettes after she was offered the lead in a biopic about one of the most influential and lasting figures in American music history. But to think that Simone’s story — or her art — was “colorless” is to miss the point of it completely.

The poster for "Nina"
The poster for “Nina”

Dominicans’ relationship with blackness is particularly fraught, even amongst Latin Americans.

The culture of the Dominican Republic is bizarrely disassociated from its people’s African ancestry, for reasons more complex than your garden variety deification of whiteness. And while Saldana is an American citizen, born in New Jersey, it’s worth considering how casting her — instead of, say, a singer like Mary J. Blige (who was originally cast in the role) or an actress like Viola Davis — looks through the lens of the Dominican Republic’s own state-sponsored vilification of blackness. It feels disrespectful. It also feels very Hollywood.

Director Cynthia Mort didn’t option Nina Simone’s life story; she optioned Clifton Henderson’s.

One of the more disturbing issues with Nina is that while it’s the first feature film about Nina Simone’s life, it’s not actually based on her life story, but rather that of Clifton Henderson, her nurse-cum-manager in the last years of her life. The film is said to revolve around a fictional romantic relationship between Simone and Henderson, one her family members claimed never happened, on account of the fact that Henderson was openly gay and not interested in women. Is it wrong to use Henderson’s point of view as a loophole to getting the approval of Simone’s estate? What’s the significance of turning a real, openly gay person into a straight character in order to facilitate a fictional romance? What does a fake love story have to do with Nina Simone? To hear her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, tell it, the estate was never invited to participate in Nina at all. Why?