*As the nation moved into its second day of mourning Prince, the feature film “Nina” quietly arrived in theaters on April 22, following months of controversy, scores of think pieces and a collective side-eye over the casting of Zoe Saldana as the fiercely complicated and prolific artist Nina Simone.
Writer/director Cynthia Mort opts to focus solely on Simone’s latter years in France during the 90s, after she had become a worldwide sensation and had grown bitter from the racial discrimination she faced in the United States. A handful of flashbacks attempt to fill in the blanks, showing glimpses of her as a child and as an absentee mother. David Oyelowo plays Clifton Henderson, the nurse she hired to take care of her in Paris. He fought an uphill battle in making sure that she took her bi-polar meds and didn’t self-destruct from her reckless behavior. Clifton eventually became her manager, and it is through her hot-tempered interaction with him that viewers are supposed to see the full spectrum of her vulnerability and genius.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to see anything past the wide nose prosthetic and dark makeup used to help transform Saldana into Simone. Despite the blood, sweat and tears the actress poured into each scene, her remarkable performance gets lost in the larger irony of a lighter-skinned actress with “good hair” being cast to portray a woman who was so famously unapologetic in the embrace of her dark skin and kinky hair. (It’s hard not to feel some kinda way when Zoe’s Nina sings, “My skin is black…my hair is wooly.”) Many African Americans saw the casting as yet another example of the colorism Nina Simone so often spoke out about; not to mention a doubling-down of Hollywood’s profit-inspired preference for actresses who look more like Saldana than Simone.
To those who have railed against the film sight unseen, the decision to convey this part of her struggle through prosthetics and dark makeup is hurtful, if not insulting; and not remotely in the same category as other actors using prosthetics to portray historical figures – like Steve Carell as John du Pont in “Foxcatcher” or Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Unlike the aforementioned, Nina’s physicality is uniquely part of her story.
Financial backers of independent films demand big bankable names before reaching into their pockets, and this film may not have been made had Saldana or another international star not agreed to step in. Mary J. Blige was originally cast in the role, but had to pull out due to repeated delays in production. During a post-screening event in Atlanta last week, Saldana explained that other actresses were sought out for the film before she was eventually approached by Mort to replace Blige; and she was initially hesitant to take the role, even after securing a blessing from Blige’s camp:
I turned the project down because for various reasons I thought I was not the right age to be a part of this project because of the time frame …And obviously – well, the other obvious reasons – but then something else came about once I kept brewing with this, and I thought, “Well, this project has been pitched at every studio. It has been offered to a number of excellent, amazing actresses that, for whatever valid reasons of their own, decided to pass on the project. …For my personal fears, do I just sit on the side and just pass this project from my hands to the next hands and just wash my hands of it and be done with it? Or do I make the decision to be a part of the telling of the story of an iconic figure in American history that happens to be a woman, that happens to be black?” So I guess the good outweighed the fear and the bad.
Saldana was speaking from a 30-minute “conversation” moderated by HLN-based TV producer Denise Hendricks following the film’s screening in Atlanta. She did not address the casting controversy and there was no Q&A with the audience. Simone was joined by “Nina” producer Stuart Parr and Simone’s longtime musical director Al Schackman.
View pics from the event below: