Controversial Casting For A Nina Simone Biopic

Nov 19, 2012
Originally published on November 26, 2012 6:35 am

The rumors that had been around for a couple of years have finally been confirmed: At long last, there's a film in the works about the turbulent life of Nina Simone, otherwise known as the "High Priestess of Soul."

Simone was famous from the 1950s through the '70s for her music and her civil rights activism. And although she died in 2003, her voice remains popular on TV, movie soundtracks and commercials.

Originally, hip-hop diva Mary J. Blige was slated to star in the film, called Nina, but she dropped out last year after shooting was delayed. To take her place, director Cynthia Mort chose willowy Zoe Saldana, a gorgeous Afro-Latina who co-starred in Avatar. And that's when the outcry began.

Erica Renee is one of several angry posters on YouTube who believes the choice of Saldana is jarringly incorrect. "It's like super-disrespectful to cast an ethnically ambiguous person to portray a woman who battled the industry's distaste for her dark skin, and her natural hair and her thick features," she says in one of her videos. Renee says Saldana's keen features and cafe au lait complexion are very close to Hollywood's typical beauty standard.

Lanita Jacobs teaches anthropology at the University of Southern California, and often lectures on how African-Americans are portrayed in film and on television. Jacobs says casting the fair-skinned Saldana, then darkening her with makeup and giving her a prosthetic nose and an Afro wig, is particularly offensive to women who have had to struggle with acceptance because of their own dark complexions.

"We understand that there are these beauty issues," Jacobs says, "and sometimes what sanctions people's right to speak on these kind of issues is whether they have had experiences born of what it means to have kinky hair, or to have wide noses or darker skin. Nina's music taps into a certain kind of awareness born of the way she looks."

Simone herself — born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, N.C. — often said in interviews that Hollywood penalizes dark-skinned female artists for their hue. Her daughter, actress Simone Kelly, told The New York Times that the singer often said she'd like Whoopi Goldberg to portray her if a movie was ever made.

The social website Change.org has circulated a petition asking director Cynthia Mort — who did not respond to our interview requests — to rethink the casting of Saldana in the title role. Petitioners said this isn't a diss of Saldana and her considerable talent, but a request for someone who more closely mirrors Simone's actual looks.

Some of the movie's black critics have already said they won't go to see it when it's finished, both because of the casting decision and because the Simone family was not consulted. But many swore they'd boycott another movie they believed did a disservice to how black women are perceived — and then turned out to see The Help in droves.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The blogosphere has been full of distress for the past month, about a movie many had been enthusiastically waiting for. It is the life story of singer and activist Nina Simone. And as NPR's Karen Grigsby-Bates reports, the controversy revolves around the director's choice of rising star Zoe Saldana to play Simone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Birds flying high, you know how I feel...

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The rumors that had been around for a couple of years were finally confirmed. At long last, a film was being made about the turbulent life of Nina Simone, otherwise known as the High Priestess of Soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL")

SIMONE: (Singing) Fish in the sea, you know how I feel. River running free, you know how I feel.

BATES: Simone was famous from the 1950s through the '70s for her music and her civil rights activism. And although she died in 2003, her voice remains popular on TV, movie soundtracks and in commercials.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL")

SIMONE: (Singing) And I'm feeling good.

BATES: Originally, hip-hop diva Mary J. Blige was slated to star, but she dropped out last year after filming was delayed. To take her place, director Cynthia Mort chose willowy Zoe Saldana, a gorgeous Afro-Latina who co-starred in "Avatar."

(SOUNDBITE FROM "AVATAR")

ZOE SALDANA: (as Neytiri) My secret place for prayers to be heard. It sometimes helps.

BATES: And that's when the outcry began.

ERICA RENEE: It's like super-disrespectful to cast an ethnically ambiguous person to portray a woman who battled the industry's distaste for her dark skin, and her natural hair and her thick features.

BATES: Erica Renee is one of several angry posters on YouTube who believes the choice of Saldana is jarringly incorrect. She says Saldana's keen features and cafe au lait complexion are very close to Hollywood's typical beauty standard. Lanita Jacobs teaches anthropology at the University of Southern California. She often lectures on how African-Americans are portrayed in film and television.

Jacobs says casting the fair-skinned Saldana, then darkening her with makeup, giving her a prosthetic nose and an Afro wig, is particularly offensive to women who have had to struggle with acceptance because of their own dark complexions.

LANITA JACOBS: We understand that there are these beauty issues, and sometimes what sanctions people's right to speak on these kind of issues is whether or not they have had experiences born of what it means to have kinky hair, or to have wide noses or darker skin. Nina's music taps into a certain kind of awareness born of the way she looks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR WOMEN")

SIMONE: (Singing) My skin is black. My arms are long. My hair is woolly and my back is strong.

BATES: Simone herself, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, noted in interviews that Hollywood penalizes dark-skinned female artists for their hue. Her daughter, actress Simone Kelly, told The New York Times that the singer often said she'd like Whoopi Goldberg to portray her if a movie was ever made. Earlier, social website Change.org hosted a petition asking director Cynthia Mort, who did not respond to our interview requests, to rethink the casting of Zoe Saldana in the title role.

Petitioners say this isn't a diss of Saldana and her considerable talent, but a request for someone who more closely mirrors Simone's actual looks. Some of the movie's black critics have already stated they won't go to see it when it's finished, both because of the casting decision and because the Simone family was not consulted. But many swore they'd boycott another movie they believed did a disservice to how black women are perceived...

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE HELP")

VIOLA DAVIS: (as Aibileen Clark) You is kind. You is smart. You is important.

BATES: And then turned out to see "The Help" in droves. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.