The controversy surrounding Nina, an upcoming biographical film about famed musician and activist Nina Simone, has reached a fever pitch in the past week.
The furor was sparked by the announcement on August 15 that Mary J. Blige, who was initially cast in the lead role, had dropped out of the film due to funding issues and had been replaced by Zoe Saldana. Reactions to the move ranged from puzzled to outright incensed, as many considered Saldana, an American of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage with fair skin and distinct Latina features, a poor choice to play the dark-complexioned, African-American Simone. Some observers argued that Saldana’s casting was another instance of filmmakers disrespecting the legacy of dark-skinned icons by having lighter-skinned actors portray them, similar to when biracial actress Jaqueline Fleming was cast as former slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman in a recent fictitious film about American president Abraham Lincoln.
The contention was heightened when Simone’s daughter, an actress born Lisa Celeste Stroud but now known simply as Simone, issued a statement revealing that not only was the upcoming film unauthorized but that the Nina Simone estate hadn’t even been invited to participate. She also posited that the very focus of the film — Nina Simone’s alleged romance with her manager and nurse Clifton Henderson — is misinformed, as Henderson was, in fact, a gay man who never had a non-professional relationship with her mother. Simone ended her statement by saying that, despite the current issues, she had faith that her mother’s “real” story will eventually be told.
“For all she endured while here and all of the lives she has touched, she DESERVES to be remembered for who she truly was; not some made up love story from a former nurse/manager (now deceased) who sold his life rights because of his relationship to Nina Simone,” she wrote.
Now, in an interview with Ebony magazine, Simone offers more of her feelings about the film, including her opinion on Saldana’s casting and the conversation she had with the film’s writer and director Cynthia Mort.
While Simone was very complimentary of Saldana, she also admitted that there are other actresses she feels would more accurately portray her mother.
“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,” she said, before naming Viola Davis and Kimberly Elise — whom Simone said she’d “had in [her] heart for a very long time” — as better fits for the role. She made reference to the fact that both of these actresses are skilled at their crafts and bear a closer physical resemblance to Nina than Saldana does due to their “beautiful, luscious lips and wide noses.”
She goes on to detail how the family offered to get involved with the project but was “ignored” and her phone conversation with Mort over a year ago — the only conversation they’ve ever had, she says — about the importance of telling her mother’s true story.
“Her life is full of enough wonderful and tragic true things to make a hit movie. You don’t have to embellish her story,” she said. “I really tried to impress on her how vital it was do a project from a place of truth.
“[W]hy do we need to embellish, to build a tall tale? That is what Cynthia Mort has done,” she later said. “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. … 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 and 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.”
For more of what Simone had to say on her feelings about and involvement with the Nina film, read the full interview at Ebony.com.