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Legendary soul singer Nina Simone has been the subject of no fewer than three cinematic treatments in 16 months. Jeff L. Lieberman’s The Amazing Nina Simone, released in October 2015 (10 months after the more high-profile documentary, Liz Garbus‘ What Happened, Miss Simone?) was a passion project for the filmmaker, who wrote, directed and produced the pic. The upcoming Simone biopic Nina, starring Zoe Saldana and to be released April 22 by RLJ Entertainment, has already come under fire, most notably from Simone’s estate for its decision to cast the lighter-skinned Avatar star and heavily alter her appearance for the role. RLJ founder and chair Robert L. Johnson defended Nina to The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday, and now Lieberman, who has read the feature’s screenplay before its premiere, counters with his perspective.
Robert Johnson’s defense of his film Nina was not only insulting, it was 100% wrong. As someone who has intensely studied Nina Simone for the past five years and recently released a documentary about her life and legacy based on interviews with over 50 of her friends, band members, family, lovers and fellow activists, I am saddened by the ugly and inaccurate portrayal contained in the script and trailer of Nina and by Mr. Johnson’s desperate attempt to defend the project. Let’s be clear: An actor is supposed to disappear in a role so the audience is only focused on the subject. The creators of Nina had the option to say, “Zoe Saldana is the best actor for the role and we believe in color-blind casting, and even though Nina Simone fought her whole life against being ‘too black,’ we still feel Ms. Saldana will embody Nina Simone beyond the physical.” They did not do that. Recognizing and admitting themselves that she did not look the part and was not going to disappear into the role, they dressed her up (poorly) in blackface makeup and prosthetics, ignoring the horrible history of this type of portrayal.
For Mr. Johnson to now claim that this is black people against black people is outrageous, and a desperate distraction. People of all colors are angered because Hollywood has a long history of casting lighter-skinned actors, and even today with a black president in the Oval Office, the Oscars overlooking black actors, and the Black Lives Matter movement at its tipping point, dark-skinned people are still passed over, even for the role of a woman whose story is defined by her proud blackness. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Four Women” are all songs that Nina Simone proudly stood for. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said in his recent essay in The Atlantic, “A young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.”
Mr. Johnson is correct in his statement about the roots of skin tone favoritism originating in slavery. But suggesting that people who look like Zoe Saldana are the victim is wrong, and a quick trick at reverse racism. Ms. Saldana could easily play the part of Lena Horne, and Halle Berry did a fine job as Dorothy Dandridge. But not every actor can play every role, even if you are of the same racial background. The creators of Nina would not have cast a person of a different gender, race, age or body shape in this role. Tom Hanks, Monique & Keke Palmer are all fine actors, but not for playing Nina Simone. So Mr. Johnson’s claim that this is a modern-day brown paper bag test skirts the subject and ignores the larger issues at hand. Since Mr. Johnson is a black man who lived through the 1960s, I am surprised he does not know what Nina Simone stood for, both for herself and for the hundreds of thousands of people she inspired along the way.
But the real problem with the film Nina goes beyond casting and prosthetics and is one that has been largely absent from the public conversation. Nina Simone lived for seven decades, and one could argue that the 1960s was truly her era. Within those 10 years, she burst onto the scene with “I Love You, Porgy” and ended the era with the uplifting anthem she co-wrote, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” In between were 25 albums of her most iconic songs, magnificent performances, and finding her true calling in the civil rights movement, taking unprecedented stands as a young black woman at that time. When Ms. Simone took to the stage of Carnegie Hall in 1964 at age 31 and proclaimed to a mostly white audience, “Mississippi Goddam,” nobody had publicly spoken about black freedom in the same way. The profane song’s lyrics took the entire country to task for its slow movement on racial injustice. These were bold and risky stands in a time of frequent lynching and assassinations. It was just the first of many protest songs that defined Nina Simone’s musical career.
The 1970s and 1980s were sadder times for Ms. Simone, and the 1990s perhaps the bleakest. I had the opportunity to read the script for Nina four years ago, and it chose to focus on the 1990s. After years without a stable home, Ms. Simone settled in the South of France, and while the warm seaside climate brought calm, it was still no match for the mental illness that consumed much of the second half of Ms. Simone’s life. It seems that the handful of unfortunate events that occurred at that time were too juicy to pass up for Nina’s writer and director, Cynthia Mort. The trailer for Nina reveals Ms. Saldana as Nina brandishing a gun, being strapped down in a hospital and throwing champagne bottles. Where there wasn’t truth, they invented it — turning Ms. Simone’s assistant, Clifton Henderson (played by David Oyelowo), into a love interest, despite the fact that he was an out gay man — and either willfully or ignorantly opted not to show Ms. Simone as she truly was, a woman in her 60s who had gained significant weight. Ms. Saldana in the film appears middle-aged and thin.
Having worked within the Hollywood system for many years, I am aware that scandal and sensation sells. The recent Netflix-funded documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? also opted for a stronger focus on Ms. Simone’s illness and domestic abuse. My recent documentary film, The Amazing Nina Simone, does not shy away from these facts. In a painful moment, Nina’s youngest brother and longtime band member, Sam Waymon, shares the heartbreaking moment when he had to institutionalize his sister. But these moments are there to answer long-held questions and are balanced by a much larger focus on the way most people know Ms. Simone: through her music. Ms. Simone had six other decades of phenomenal musical accomplishments and civil rights stands, and she became an international symbol of freedom, pride and artistry. To overlook this is not only an insult to Ms. Simone’s very rich and complex life, but a blatant white-washing of her achievements as a black woman in 20th century America.
Many have come out in defense of both Zoe Saldana and the film’s director, Cynthia Mort, proclaiming their right to artistic expression. But ignoring black American women’s accomplishments is not new, and when one adds up all the liberties that this production has taken in the telling of Ms. Simone’s story, it feels less like a tribute and more a desire for pure sensationalism at the cost of everything Nina Simone fought so tirelessly for.
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