‘Nina’ Biopic Distributor Defends Zoe Saldana’s Casting

Since the announcement of Nina‘s imminent April 22 release, the media has once again been up in arms about the casting of Zoe Saldana in the role of Nina Simone in the biopic. 

Revolving mainly around Saldana’s light-skinned appearance, much of the backlash has likened Saldana’s “change” for the role (she used skin-darkening makeup) to blackface. Because of the fact that Nina Simone’s dark complexion was a central facet of her career and its lasting impact, many people thought that the casting was inexcusable.

Today, Robert L. Johnson, founder of BET and also the founder and current chair of RLJ Entertainment, responded to the criticisms in a one-on-one interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s unfortunate that African-Americans are talking about this in a way that hearkens back to how we were treated when we were slaves,” he notes. “The slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks, and some of that social DNA still exists today among many black people.”

For Johnson, Zoe Saldana’s casting is justified simply because, albeit being several shades lighter than Nina Simone, she is still indeed black. He looks back to the brown paper bag test — in which a brown paper bag is used to determine if a black person was light enough to participate in an activity — to prove his point: “To say that if I’m gonna cast a movie, I’ve gotta hold a brown paper bag up to the actresses and say, ‘Oh sorry, you can’t play her.’ Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?”

And Johnson doesn’t seem to be at all intimidated by the criticism surrounding the casting choice: “As an African-American, I will gladly engage anyone on this question of should we be talking about how light or how dark you should be to play a role.” He continues, noting, “Black Americans should know better than to have this discussion over a creative project. We’re not talking about white against black. We’re talking about black against black.”

Ultimately, Robert L. Johnson’s primary concern seems to be that the movie (and Saldana’s performance in it) will be largely overlooked and unfairly criticized if the discussion around it continues to center on Saldana’s complexion. He urges, “Make the judgment on the talent of the actors, make the judgment on the writing, but don’t make it on whether or not Zoe Saldana is as black as Nina.”