The story seemed so ludicrous that I easily dismissed it, especially given the earliest reports didn’t specify the exact role actress Zoe Saldana would be playing in the long-delayed Nina Simone biopic. But alas, it seems that Saldana will in fact be portraying the life of singer, songwriter, pianist and activist and not the singer’s daughter. A back and forth has predictably albeit understandably ensued upon the confirmation.
Some have quickly scrutinized the choice of casting largely on the merits of aesthetics. It’s somewhat cringeworthy to hear it explained in the context of “Zoe doesn’t look Black enough,” yet beyond such a provocative statement is a legitimate critique that a fair-skinned, ultra thin, Black actress portraying a woman who was everything but is a bit of a slap in the face to Simone’s legacy – which this movie purportedly seeks to honor.
At the same time, one could make the case that if the people behind the movie initially wanted Mary J. Blige in the role (who reportedly left due to the project’s troubles with financing) perhaps what’s most important to the project’s handlers is a name versus a look.
After all, we do live in a world where Ne-Yo can say he turned down the chance to play Dr. Martin Luther King on the big screen because he didn’t want to gain any extra pounds following the formation of a new physique to coincide with a new album.
That reality allows for another and maybe more credible argument to make against the project.
As much as I adore Mary J. Blige and don’t doubt her claims that she was working hard to deliver a credible performance, didn’t she essentially start the long running joke about this movie among skeptics? All Saldana’s casting does is offer doubters another way to deliver a punch line. And rightfully so, actually, because while Saldana is a decent actress, even if she looked like Nina’s long lost twin she’d still be an odd choice to play the high priestess of soul.
Nina Simone is someone who once argued “Slavery has never been abolished from America's way of thinking.”
Meanwhile, Zoe infamously told EBONY magazine last year, “We have a Black president right now. So why the f— would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for Black women in Hollywood when there’s a Black president in my country?"
To get someone with Zoe Saldana’s mentality to portray the likes of Nina Simone on screen is akin to asking Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta’s Joseline Hernandez to play Assata Shakur – and even then I might give the edge to Joseline.
Worse news about this upcoming movie, set to begin shooting in the fall, is that the story is centered on a romance between her mother and Clifton Henderson that never existed.
Taking to Facebook to air her grievances, Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone (nee Lisa Celeste Stroud), wrote: “Clifton Henderson was gay. He was not attracted to women. So, the truth is...Nina Simone and Clifton Henderson NEVER had a relationship other than a business one. Please correct me, but isn't a biopic the story of one's life?”
So we’re getting some soft, romanticized work that sounds sort of along the lines of “What if Will and Grace were Black and straight?”
Simone went on to explain: “Please note, this project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone Estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate.”
It’s all starting to make more sense. To that end, while I keep hoping that a rep for Saldana or the production team behind the movie will release a statement that says “Sike!” does it really even matter at this point? Regardless of what hue Simone is presented in, this film appears to be offering the world a circus mirror-like depiction of her.
Isn’t that the greater wrong?