India Arie: Why Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone Is "Tone-Deaf" Casting (Q&A)

Courtesy of Photofest; Screengrab/RLJ Entertainment
Simone (left), Saldana in character in 'Nina'

The Grammy-winning soul singer, who saw an early cut of the film, tells THR that she doesn’t blame the actress for taking the role but says the blackface controversy "is ironic in the worst possible way."

Grammy-winning soul singer-songwriter India Arie was an early critic of the Nina Simone biopic Nina, penning an open letter on the decision to cast Zoe Saldana shortly after on-set photos of the actress in darkened skin and facial prosthetics surfaced in 2012.

Outrage over the long-shelved film went viral this week when the trailer was released on Wednesday, with the harshest response coming from the official Twitter account of Simone’s estate. (Simone’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, told Time that although the family disapproves of the film, she does not hold Saldana responsible for its failings.)

Arie, a musical descendant of Nina Simone who portrayed her in a musical performance during a 2003 episode of the 1960s-set NBC drama American Dreams, saw an early version of the movie during a 2013 private screening.

She spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about why she doesn’t blame Saldana, how this cinematic treatment of Simone fails to understand the icon's essence and legacy, and why she understands Judd Apatow's dismissal of the whole controversy: "To be of the most powerful race and gender in the world, of course that’s going to be your point of view."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What did you think of the movie?

It made me sad. The way she looked in the movie was ugly. Whether or not Nina Simone was beautiful in your eyes, I thought she was beautiful. But in this movie, she just looked weird. Her skin looked weird, and her nose looked weird. It made me wonder, was that how the filmmakers see her? Did they not think she was beautiful? Were they like, “Yeah, we got it! That’s how she looked.”

Why are some people calling this a blackface performance? Isn’t Zoe Saldana black? Or is this about her not “being black enough”?

It’s messy to put it that way. I think the best way to say it is that they casted her against type and went too far to make her fit. It’s not my place to say how Zoe Saldana perceives herself, and I can’t say how anybody else perceives her either. I see her as a black person of Hispanic origin, but I don’t even know what that really means, because I don’t know anything about race and Hispanic culture. 

In my open letter I called it “black(er) face.” I didn’t know what to call it either. I have heard that there were black actors who played blackface, back when people did that. I think blackface was putting charcoal on your face and doing a certain type of act on stage, the shucking and jiving. You could be black or white. [The Nina portrayal] is a caricature. You had to put a whole other face on someone’s face. 

Zoe has said that playing Nina Simone is her truth. Does she deserve any of this blame?

I don’t know her and I don’t think she did anything wrong. If I were in her shoes and I admired Nina Simone the way that I hear she does, I would have said yes, too, and I don’t even think I can act. If they asked me to sing Nina Simone, I got that. But I never pursued it because I felt it was not my place. And I don’t know if it was her place to do that.

I think they cast Zoe Saldana because they wanted a big name, but that makes me ask, “Is the name Nina Simone not big enough to get people to come to the movie?” 

It sounds like you’re not judging Zoe’s right to have accepted this role.

I can’t say I’m 100 percent not judging. There’s that vocal intellectual conversation in all the magazines and on TV, and there’s that emotional conversation about how we feel about things and how we are all on our own journeys. Then there’s that spiritual conversation, beneath race and all those things. On that soul level, I’m not here to say what she’s supposed to do. Your soul is between you and God. On that soul level, it’s not my place to say. Emotionally, I respect her truth. Intellectually, though, I’m pretty judge-y about it. I don’t like it; I’m just being honest.

Actors do transform their looks to play real-life characters, most recently like Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs. Why does it matter that Zoe Saldana doesn’t look like the real Nina Simone?

I do kind of agree with that argument that we are diminishing the creativity of acting if you have to cast a person who looks exactly like her — in a perfect world, race shouldn’t matter, right? But we don’t live in a perfect world and it does matter. Nina Simone sacrificed so much to be as bold as she was about being black and about being female in an era where that could have cost her life. She was denied access to a conservatory not because she didn’t play great, but because she was black. She would have had a different career if she looked like Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge. She could have been the first black female concert pianist, world-famous. When you look a certain way you get certain privileges; when you look another way you’re denied access to certain things, especially in her era.

So in the context of the politics of race in America and the politics of race in the entertainment industry in America, to make a movie about a person like that and cast an actress that has to wear blackface and a prosthetic nose is tone-deaf. To propagate that institutionalized racism that is historical in Hollywood in a movie about her is ironic in the worst possible way. 

It’ll be nice when someone like a Zoe Saldana could play Nina Simone and there wouldn’t have to even be a conversation. That’s extreme, but what I mean is when there can just be black actresses with lots of opportunities because people can see the beauty in all kinds of different faces and skin tones. But we’re far away from that. We’re really far away from somebody like Zoe Saldana being able to play Nina Simone and nobody cares. Maybe that’s utopia.

Nina’s director, casting director, makeup and prosthetic artists and producers (except executive producers David Oyelowo and Aigerim Jakisheva) are all white. Do you think this problem could have been averted if more people principally involved in the production were black?

Yes, I think so. There are certain understandings that are just in your bones, based on who you are, and those would have been brought to bear. I don’t know if it would have been a perfect movie, but certain fundamental truths would have been taken into account. 

But there’s also a part of me that’s naïve and thinks, even if it were 98 percent white people involved in the making of this movie, it still could have been done right if they cared enough to do it right. But obviously, that didn’t happen.

In response to this controversy, Judd Apatow sarcastically tweeted, “I think all actors should only be allowed to play themselves. It is offensive to pretend to be other people.” In other words, he seems to be defending artistic freedom of expression.

I believe in freedom of expression, too. But when someone’s freedom of expression is denied to give someone else a freedom of expression, then who is free? What he’s saying doesn’t take into account so many things that matter to this story. I see why that is his point of view and he has that right. Why would you have the point of view of a black woman when you’re a white man? I respect his perspective.

It sounds like he has the utopian perspective you were talking about, where there’s not a problem if Zoe Saldana plays Nina Simone because there’s not a limit of opportunities for people who look like Nina Simone, and in his worldview things are less limited.

Far, far less limited. (Laughs.) That’s what people mean sometimes when they use the word “privilege.” You have the privilege of not having to look at these ugly things. I get it. You don’t know what you don’t know. To be of the most powerful race and gender in the world, of course that’s going to be your point of view, and it actually gives me a hope that some people can see it that way. But if you’re talking to me, a black woman in America who makes music that’s spiritual and socially conscious and all this stuff that they don’t really want black women in the music industry to do, then I’m gonna have different takes from Judd Apatow. Very different. (Laughs.)

Why are some people taking this portrayal of Nina Simone so seriously? What does she mean to you?

I loved her music and the fact that she was a classically trained pianist and that her voice was so unique, but what made Nina Simone my hero is that I had never seen anyone in the public eye who looked anything like me at all, ever. When you think about the way that we as human beings can inspire each other by being able to be our authentic selves, to deny someone who looks like Nina Simone the opportunity to play her is sad. It would have been important and impactful had they made a movie about Nina Simone where the actress really looked like her. It would have changed someone’s life, I think. She changed my life just by looking the way she looked.

Like Oprah says, we all want to know, “Do you see me? Do you hear me?” When people don’t look like you in commercials, no one looks like you anywhere, Nina Simone made me feel like I existed. And wouldn’t it be amazing if that happened for someone else?

When you’re a black woman in the entertainment industry, you really feel that black tax. You have to try twice as hard to get half as much, for people to see you or for people to understand your beauty and to photograph your skin the right way, and to think that you’re beautiful enough to want to photograph you the right way. I have had personal conversations with some black women in Hollywood who would be considered some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, and they struggle with it too: “I lost to this actress because she’s lighter. It’s always me and her, and then she gets it.” I think that needs to be taken into account any time you talk about Nina Simone. I say this because I look at the world through those same eyes. I came into the music industry and I was really naïve. I know a lot about my history, but I thought, “We live in modern times and I’m gonna have as much of a chance as anybody else.” And I did and I didn’t. I have more access than my mother would have had at my age, but there were other things that were just denied me based on my race and my skin tone and my facial features. 

How does this film portray Nina Simone?

I saw a very early, early version in 2013, so I don’t know what they ended up doing, but it was a lot like the feel that you got from watching the Nina Simone documentary [the recent Oscar-nominated What Happened, Miss Simone?]: She was troubled, she was institutionalized, she had addictions. It doesn’t go into her childhood and things like that. It was just a story about her and the butler, and I guess his perception about what happened when he was with her.

What kind of movie would you like to see about Nina Simone, and who would you want to play her?

The thing for me is that Nina Simone is part of a small sorority of women who came from being considered the least valuable human beings in all of America — a dark-skinned black woman from Jim Crow South, from very oppressed societal situations, like Maya Angelou being abused because you’re just a black girl, Oprah being abused because you’re just a black girl, Nina Simone being abused because you’re just a black girl — and who became self-defined and venerated and successful and influential and made history. I want to see the epic tale of a woman who came from nothing to have everything and who struggled and had a child and mental illness and addictions. I want to see the story of a full person.

If I was going to pick someone I know, I would choose Adepero Oduye [a Sundance breakout for 2011’s Pariah, most recently of The Big Short] because of her acting chops and her facial features. But also, wouldn’t it be cool if somebody just came out of nowhere, like a stage actress or how Lupita Nyong’o just came out of nowhere? Somebody who’s amazing and ethnic and really beautiful and had chops, and then she did this movie and had a chance to elevate her craft the way that Nina Simone did? That to me would capture her essence. To see someone else have that opportunity because she paved that road, that to me would be inspirational.

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