Zoe Saldana Faces Backlash for Nina Simone Biopic

By Shawn Paul Wood Comment

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This is a perception story. From Jamestown colonists in 1619 to Mississippi Klansmen in 1963, perception has always been at the heart of racism. So, when it came to who would play jazz legend Nina Simone in her biopic, (she died at the age of 70) people were invested.

For those who don’t know, Simone became known as one of the sterling voices of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, two of her most acclaimed songs were “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the assassination of Medgar Evers (see the aforementioned KKK reference for the connection) and “Why (The King of Love is Dead)” to commemorate the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But Nina Simone was a troubled soul. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol and there were rumors she abused and abandoned her own daughter. All of this has sparked a national discussion surrounding her biopic, which comes out next month. When it was announced that Nina would be starring Zoe Saldana, Simone’s people weren’t pleased.

Look at the actress. Sure, there she bears some resemblance to Simone, but if you have seen Avatar, Star Trek, or Guardians of the Galaxy, you know that is not how she looks typically. To pull off Nina Simone’s appearance, she had to get prosthetics on her face, wear a wig, and even darken her skin — a process known as “blackfacing.”

Saldana, of Dominican descent, is a beautiful woman of color, but according to Simone fans and most of her family, she is not enough of a woman of color.

Yeah, not good.

If you watch the trailer below, Saldana looks (and sounds… yes, that’s her) like she pulls this thing off. The movie focuses on the last decade of the “High Priestess of Soul’s” life, which involved the painful years and her relationship with her manager, Clifton Henderson (played by David Oyelowo, ironically, who played MLK in Selma).

However, most of the world is stuck on Saldana’s appearance. There was even a Change.org petition to remove Saldana, following Mary J. Blige bowing out. Many have mentioned Audra McDonald, Alfre Woodard, or the great Viola Davis would be perfect for the role. Even Simone’s family is torn.

The rumors of Ms. Saldana’s casting prompted Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, to write a note to her mother’s fans on the official Nina Simone Facebook page. Ms. Kelly, who was born Lisa Celeste Stroud, said that the project was unauthorized, and that Simone’s estate had not been asked permission or been asked to participate in the film.

“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” Ms. Kelly said in an interview. “Appearance-wise this is not the best choice,” she added, referring to Ms. Saldana.

Since that article in The New York Times, Kelly — who doesn’t manage that Twitter account — has changed her tune, if you pardon the pun.

“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture,” the 53-year-old singer-actress told the outlet. “It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”

The lies in question are about the film’s premise — there was no relationship with Simone’s manager, save for the fact that Kelly alleges Henderson was gay.

“The project has been tainted from the very beginning. Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life and everyone now knows that. This is not how you want your loved ones remembered,” said Kelly to Time magazine.

On April 22, some of us will remember the great songstress. Most of us will be introduced to her for the first time, regardless of how it is perceived on screen.

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