For many of us, Nina Simone is nothing less than a goddess. Her music informs our lives (see: “Wild is the Wind,” “Feelin’ Good,” “Pirate Jenny, “Mississippi Goddamn,” etc, etc), her courage inspires us, we name our daughters for her, wallpaper our homes with her regal face in profile. The announcement of the casting of Mary J. Blige a few years ago, and more recently of Zoe Saldana, have been met by emotional outrage by those who truly know the meaning and the movement of Nina Simone because for us, she’s more than a singer, she’s a heroine. And when it comes to our history and our heroines, Hollywood gets it wrong far more often then right.
Nina Simone’s only daughter, an accomplished Broadway actress (Aida, Lion’s King, Rent) and vocalist who goes by simply ‘Simone,’ has made it her business to be a dutiful gatekeeper to her mother’s legacy for many years. She engages with Nina fans via the official Nina Simone website and Facebook page and has lovingly performed her mother’s classic tunes across the world. Last week, Simone took to Facebook to reply to the hundreds of concerned fans who’d been asking her thoughts on the recent casting announcement. Here she elaborates on that, the film’s problematic script and what it means to be the heir to “the High Priestess of Soul.”
EBONY: Can you clarify your feelings about the casting of Zoe Saldana to play your mother?
Simone: I love Zoe Saldana’s work. I’ve seen some of her movies more than once and really enjoy what she brings to the screen. As an actress I respect her process, but I also know that there are many actresses out there, known or not, who would be great as my mother. The one actress that I’ve had in my heart for a very long time, whose work I’m familiar with already, is Kimberly Elise. Many people have spoken to me about Viola. I love her look. I love her energy. Both of the actresses that I’ve mentioned are women of color, are women with beautiful, luscious lips and wide noses, and who know their craft. I also have no problem introducing someone we’ve never heard of before who can play my mother.
EBONY: This project that’s going forward, you’ve talked about having little to nothing to do with it. How does that happen?
S: I’ve been asking myself that question. How does that happen? As I said on my blog, when the announcement came out approximately six years ago that Mary J. Blige had been cast to play Nina Simone, I heard it along with everyone else and I was very concerned. How does someone just decide to do a story about someone and completely bypass family? Completely bypass her representatives? We offered to get involved with all the stuff that we have, from the music, to the pictures, to her writings, to connecting them with the stories of many people who were close to my mother, and we were ignored.
EBONY: Do you hold the rights to any of your mother’s music?
S: Some of the music. When my mom passed away, as her only child, I had no idea who the heroes were, who the monsters were. I realized just how protected I was when the queen was alive. When I stepped into my mother’s shoes and became the gatekeeper of her legacy, there were many people coming at me with regards to many things. There are some rights that are owned by me. There are some rights that are not.
EBONY: Have you been in touch with Cynthia Mort, the director? I’m wondering if you’ve had any contact with her, particularly in relationship to your concerns about the scope of the script. Your Facebook update said the script focuses on the last 8 years of her life.
S: I talked with Cynthia once, about a year and a half ago. It was very emotional for me to just get on the phone with her because there were so many questions in my mind. So I asked a good friend of mine to join us on the call with me to keep it grounded. I asked her if her mother was still alive. I asked her if she still had a good relationship with her mother and she sounded like a really nice lady. She really, really believes in what she’s doing. I do remember saying to her that if any of us tried to take the story of Bing Crosby or, Dean Martin, or Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley and turn it into something that was a tall tale based on something that never happened, I doubt that we’d get very far. My mother’s life was tragic enough. My mother suffered enough. Her life is full of enough wonderful and tragic true things to make a hit movie. You don’t have to embellish her story. I really tried to impress on her how vital it was do a project from a place of truth. If you write something that my mother might’ve said or done that I find embarrassing, I may not like it, but I’d never try to get in the way of truth.
Q: So you’re not a gatekeeper. For instance, there are longstanding rumors that Jimi Hendrix’s family, who holds the rights to almost all of his music, won’t allow his music to be in a film that shows him using drugs. So you’re not someone who’s trying to whitewash your mother’s legacy is what you’re saying?
S: No, not at all. Her life is educational, inspirational, entertaining, and downright shocking at times. My mother was good at shocking people. She enjoyed it and she did it well. So why do we need to embellish, to build a tall tale? That is what Cynthia Mort has done. She has taken my mother’s name and then bought the life rights to her male nurse turned manager, Clifton Henderson’s life. In my opinion, she came in through the back door. I was saying, come in the front door, let’s have a cup of tea, let’s talk about it. Let’s work together. I asked her ‘How did you get in contact with Clifton?’ She said she googled him. I asked her ‘If you googled him, I was starring on Broadway at the time. I’m her only child. I’m not hard to find. Why didn’t you contact me?’ It’s interesting because it took a little while, but the truth finally came out. She told me she was told not to contact me. My mother and I had our ups and downs, like any family, but we loved each other until the end, and I wouldn’t try to edit our troubles out of any project. When Cynthia and I ended the call, we agreed to talk again the next day. I felt like we’d broken some really good ground that we’d created a place from which we could continue to communicate. But when I called into the conference call the next day, I was the only one on the line.
Q: That’s so common and so sad. I’d like to circle back to casting, a final question, also based on something you said about your mother’s childhood. How important was colorism to your mother? You wrote that as a young girl she’d been told that she was “too Black” and her nose was “too wide.” Was that an issue throughout her life?
S: I don’t think people told her that throughout her life, but I can guarantee that the sense of insecurity and the questioning of one’s beauty that results from a grownup telling you that as a child you’re too black and your nose is too wide, remained with her for the rest of her life.