The adage “all press is good press” couldn’t be further from the truth. Just ask Zoe Saldana, star of the upcoming biopic Nina, about the late iconic singer and activist Nina Simone. Saldana’s involvement in the film, which over the years has been labeled “doomed,” “troubled” and “controversial,” has been widely criticized. The film has been mired by a petition to remove Saldana, a lawsuit from its director, Cynthia Mort, against the movie’s backers, and according to the actress in a recent interview with Latina, mismanagement.
In the telling interview, Saldana stated that “Nina deserves better,” and revealed that she hasn’t been able to listen to the singer’s music since working on the project. But here’s where I get a little confused: “I’ll be able to listen to her and not feel so heartbroken,” said Saldana, “once I either finish this movie and release it, knowing that we did the best we could, or this movie goes away.” Then in the next breath, Saldana claims that she’s still fighting for the film.
Color me confused.
Granted, a lot of factors about the movie and its release are completely out of Saldana’s control, but this take it or leave it stance seems oddly…familiar.
In fact, it’s the same stance she took when considering the role in the first place. Saldana publicly admitted that she didn’t think she was the right actress to portray Simone. She actually turned down the role for a year before changing her mind. Then, when Simone fans and critics voiced their opinions on her casting, claiming the film’s producers should find a more authentic representation of Simone’s physical likeness, considering how much that informed the music she created and indeed the life she lived, Saldana was quick to brush off naysayers and defend her decision. Now she wouldn’t feel any type of way if the film were to “go away”?
Now, I am not the Blackness police, nor am I a believer in the tired my-Black-is-blacker-than-your-Black debate. But I do understand the concern initially raised regarding Saldana’s involvement. Why cast her when there are so many capable actresses who more closely resemble Simone’s likeness, and don’t need makeup or a prosthetic nose to achieve the look? To me, the uproar spoke more to Hollywood’s penchant for casting Black actresses with fairer skin tones, and not Saldana’s actual acting ability. Yet there was also a part of me that considered Saldana’s decision to play such an iconic woman brave. To tackle a challenge you’re not sure you can handle because of your love for a figure, and with so many judging eyes on you, is rather commendable. That doesn’t negate, however, my concern regarding Saldana’s integrity that, along with many other factors, seems to have compromised the movie. And that’s what’s actually important here.
Was Saldana allowed to change her mind and to take on the role of Nina Simone? Absolutely. And I don’t doubt that she put her all into her performance. But the back and forth in this saga, this never-ending story about the film’s production that has overshadowed what it supposedly intends to do, is troubling to Simone’s legacy. This is an opportunity to introduce Simone and her music to those unaware of her tremendous contributions to our musical, political and social landscape. It couldn’t be more timely. That’s why I believe Saldana was right in saying that Simone deserves better. That’s exactly why Lisa Simone Kelly, the singer’s daughter, fully supported the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? She was an executive producer on the film and felt it authentically represented her mother’s life. And unlike Nina, which utilized a composite character based on Simone’s manager Clifton Henderson and a former nurse, the documentary is factually-based. Plus, it had Kelly’s full support and made use of her personal knowledge of her late mother.
I wonder if there would have been such an uproar if Mary J. Blige, who was initially attached to play Simone, was in the film. Blige is an actual singer but one with little acting experience. People probably would have questioned her ability to play such an iconic, troubling, rebel figure, and that could have rubbed fans the wrong way. But the fact remains that Nina, which is supposed to be released in December, has already put a bad taste in the mouths of future viewers and made a name for itself that does Simone a disservice. The only way to truly gauge its worth is to watch it for ourselves. If Nina sees the light of day, I hope, for Simone’s legacy, it’s well worth the wait.