Race & beauty: Family of Nina Simone outraged at casting of Zoe Saldana

Saldana as Simone
Saldana as Simone
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Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – If there was any doubt about how Nina Simone’s family and fans feel about the upcoming biopic starring Zoe Saldana, recent social media posts make it clear they are not pleased.

A fresh round of criticism for the film erupted after the trailer and poster for Nina were unveiled Wednesday.

Saldana posted a quote from the singer and civil rights activist on Twitter, and Simone’s estate responded with: “Cool story but please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”

Simone’s daughter and others have decried the choice to cast a lighter-skinned actress as the African American activist since Saldana took the part in 2012. Her skin was apparently darkened significantly for the role, and she wears a prosthetic nose.

At the time, Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, said, “Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.”

“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” Kelly explained to The New York Times in a 2012 interview.

Simone’s dark complexion and traditionally African features were central to her identity and concept of Black beauty, so casting someone with Saldana’s more European appearance is galling, said Miriam J. Petty, an assistant professor in the radio-television-film department at Northwestern University.

“It’s disrespectful and demonstrates the depth of the ignorance of the person making the film of the very subject of the film,” she said.

The Simone estate tweeted on March 2: “Hopefully people begin to understand this is painful. Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, nauseating, soul-crushing.”

The estate is urging fans to hold listening parties on the film’s release date rather than watching Nina.

Petty, who is also a devoted Simone fan, also encourages fans to stay away.

“I think it’s important not to support this film financially, because the problem with biopics is they become the last word,” she said. “Whatever can be done to discredit this film as not the definitive one, by virtue of the philosophical problem, the very blatant philosophical problem of this casting.”

The singer’s estate cooperated with producers of the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? which was nominated for an Oscar this year.

BET founder Robert L. Johnson, founder and chairman of the studio releasing Nina, describes Saldana’s performance as “an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute.”

“She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent,” he said in a statement on March 3. “The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.”

Petty asked, “Then why put Zoe Saldana in brown-face makeup?”

The casting choice follows a Hollywood tradition of hiring lighter-skinned actors to play people who would naturally have darker brown skin. Filmmakers apologized months before Gods of Egypt was released for casting Scottish actor Gerard Butler and Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as mythical Egyptian gods.

Twitter and Facebook feeds questioned why actor/singers Erykah Badu, India Irie, Ledisi, Lauryn Hill, Estelle, Janelle Monae or Brandy weren’t chosen for the role.

“To have someone with such light skin and narrow nose who makes such a great effort to ignore racial differences and issues, chosen to portray such a strong activist for racial equality through her songs, tells me ‘they’ still don’t get ‘it,’” stated a Simone fan on Facebook.

Representatives for Saldana and the Simone estate did not respond to requests for comment by press deadline.

RLJ Entertainment will release the film in theaters, digital HD and video on demand on April 22.

Robyn H. Jimenez/The Dallas Examiner contributed to this report.

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