Despite the fact that no one really seems to want see actress Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone in an upcoming film biopic (or so says the New York Times), the picture is not only going forward, it begins shooting this week. And some iconic names are joining the cast. Or at least, cast members that will play iconic African-American figures. Comedian Mike Epps (“Next Friday,” “The Hangover“) has signed up to play Richard Pryor in the biopic simply known as “Nina.”
The biopic will tell the tale the story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone, including her rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson played by David Oyelowo (“The Paperboy,” “Middle Of Nowhere“). Directed and written by Cynthia Mort (a writer on “Roseanne,” “Tell Me You Love Me,” and a consulting producer on “Will & Grace”), the filmmaker will be making her feature-length directorial debut with “Nina” and is perhaps best remembered recently as the writer and producer behind “Tilda” — the HBO show that was supposed to be based on the life of Nikki Finke and Hollywood journalism, but never made it past the pilot.
Pryor, according to THR, opened up for Simone when the two were starting out in the early 1960s. He had stage fright and she calmed him down. It will be interesting to see if this is more than just a small supporting role. Epps recently appeared in “Sparkle,” the film that turned out to be Whitney Houston’s last screen performance, and evidently he’ll be back for “The Hangover Part III,” even though his character was not featured in the sequel. With the picture shooting this week, we assume other casting announcements will hit in the next few days (Shadow and Act has a list of the main roles that have yet to be cast, none of them are major figures like Pryor though).
As for the naysayers, apparently that centers on the lightskinned-ness of Saldana. “Hollywood and the media have a tendency to whitewash and lightwash a lot of stories, particularly when black actresses are concerned,” Tiffani Jones, the founder of the blog Coffee Rhetoric told the Times in September. She actually created an Change.org online petition that called for the filmmakers to “replace Zoe Saldana with an actress who actually looks like Nina Simone.” Not to mention that Simone’s daughter has also been very vocal about her opposition to the way to the movie is coming together. Legendary record exec and producer Jimmy Iovine (the head of Interscope records), is also one of the executive producers on the film. Cinematography heads should note: “The Master” DP, Mihai Malaimare Jr., is shooting this picture as well.