'Nina' Distributor on Zoe Saldana Casting: "Who's to Decide When You're Black Enough?"

Nina_Robert L. Johnson_Inset - H 2016
Screengrab/RLJ Entertainment; Getty Images

Nina_Robert L. Johnson_Inset - H 2016

Robert L. Johnson, whose RLJ Entertainment will release the Nina Simone biopic on April 22, tells THR that backlash against the film is a relic of slave-era mentality.

Two weeks after the trailer for Nina hit the Internet and caused an outcry over Zoe Saldana's heavily altered appearance as Nina Simone, the film's distributor is speaking to reporters in defense of the project.

Critics of Nina, a biopic from U.K.-based Ealing Studios Entertainment, have protested the casting of Saldana, a light-skinned actress of Afro-Latina descent, to portray the legendary high priestess of soul, claiming that Simone's physical appearance as a dark-skinned black woman had a major impact on her life and career.

"It's unfortunate that African-Americans are talking about this in a way that hearkens back to how we were treated when we were slaves," says RLJ Entertainment founder and chair Robert L. Johnson, who also founded BET. "The slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks, and some of that social DNA still exists today among many black people."

Saldana donned skin-darkening makeup and facial prosthetics for the role, for which she was heavily criticized. India Arie called it "tone deaf" casting, and the official Twitter account for Simone's estate posted: "Cool story but please take Nina's name out your mouth. For the rest of your life." Queen Latifah and Paula Patton defended Saldana's role, however. Patton said of the backlash, "Clearly, someone thought she was perfect for it — she's an amazing actress, she's beautiful — and you haven't even given her a chance and you haven't seen it yet."

A day after the trailer's release, Johnson issued a written statement that read, in part: "Creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness."

Now, in his one-on-one interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Johnson cites arguments against Saldana's skin tone as akin to in-group discriminatory practices like the brown paper bag test, wherein certain black community gatherings would only admit individuals whose skin was lighter than the bag. "That's where some of this comes from, when you hear people saying that a light-skinned woman can't play a dark-skinned woman when they're both clearly of African descent," he says. "To say that if I'm gonna cast a movie, I've gotta hold a brown paper bag up to the actresses and say, 'Oh sorry, you can't play her.' Who's to decide when you're black enough?"

Johnson clearly is passionate about the subject and had plenty more to say regarding the backlash. "As an African-American, I will gladly engage anyone on this question of should we be talking about how light or how dark you should be to play a role," he says. "Many people who are talking about it don't even realize what they're getting into. Imagine if I were to do a biopic about Lena Horne, who's obviously light-skinned, or Dorothy Dandridge. Would it be fair if I put up a sign that said 'No black women apply'? That would be ridiculous. Black Americans should know better than to have this discussion over a creative project. We're not talking about white against black. We're talking about black against black."

Ultimately, Johnson urges people not to make up their minds until they've seen the film in full. RLJ Entertainment will release Nina on VOD and in select theaters on April 22, after picking up the rights in September 2015. (In an interview with THR four months prior, Ealing owner Ben Latham-Jones said that the biopic would be distributed by eOne and Universal in late 2015.)

"Make the judgment on the talent of the actors, make the judgment on the writing, but don't make it on whether or not Zoe Saldana is as black as Nina. You can always say, 'Gee, I can find somebody who's blacker,'" Johnson says. "Let's talk about [the film] in terms of giving talented African-Americans a chance to play roles that they're qualified to play."