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RLJ Entertainment Founder Robert L. Johnson Issues Statement in Response to ‘Nina’ Controversy

RLJ Entertainment Founder Robert L. Johnson Issues Statement in Response to 'Nina' Controversy

UPDATE 3/3/2016: Given the heavy and wide criticism the upcoming film has faced since the trailer debuted yesterday, the Founder and Chairman of RLJ Entertainment (the company distributing the film), Robert L. Johnson (also the founder of BET), has issued a public statement in response, which reads:  “Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone. She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent. 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. Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance. We are proud to distribute the film headlined by Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo on April 22, 2016.” 

I doubt that this will do anything to calm troubled waters, but I think a response from Johnson was inevitable. By most accounts, reactions have been strongly negative since yesterday’s trailer debut (not surprisingly), with some criticizing RLJ Entertainment for even wanting to release the film. So he had to say something in support of his decision to distribute the film. 

If anything, all this controversy may actually help fuel interest in the film, if only because some may want to watch it just to see whether it’s as advertised by Johnson, or if it’s as bad as they expect it to be. Sort of like rubbernecking I suppose. Controversy does often sell tickets. Although let’s see if this one proves to be an exception.

All previous recent updates on the film (trailer, poster, release info) follow below.


UPDATE 3/2/2016: Following yesterday’s announcement that the film will finally be released in April, after 2 years of uncertainty… as I suspected would happen today, a trailer for the film is now online. Watch it below.


RLJ Entertainment has announced that “Nina” – the controversial Nina Simone film starring Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo – will be released in theaters, VOD and Digital HD on April 22, 2016.

“Nina” is written and directed by Cynthia Mort.

Official synopsis: She was one of the century’s most extraordinary talents, a 15-time Grammy nominee and Grammy Hall of Fame Recipient; her mesmerizing songs and passionate politics combined to make her the unforgettable Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana). But fame and fortune came with a price, and her later years were riddled with depression, alcohol abuse and isolation. Rediscovering the meaning of her life and work took courage, strength and one true friend: Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), the man who started out as her assistant and eventually became her loyal manager. With Clifton’s encouragement, the “high priestess of soul” began a courageous journey back to her music … and, eventually, herself.

If you’d like to catch up on all the previous drama that has followed the film over the last couple of years, read my May 2015 piece which summarizes it all here.

Along with news of the film’s release, RLJ has also debuted the film’s first official poster, which is embedded above.

Trailer below.

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After receiving a stinking left hook and a powerful uppercut, GETTHESENETS lays on the canvas, a battered and beaten man. It looks like a knockout. So, if he does not gets up before the end of the count, his record will be 1 win (he slaughtered Walter Gavin) and 1 lose. The referee counts… 1-2-3-4-5-6-7…

Susan Majek

We can say what we want, but as usual, the ones with the financial means and connections do what they want and they will continue to…




GETTHESENETS is not a rudy poot debater. No way, it’s not his Modus operandi. He generally comes well prepared, giving facts to support his argument. So it’s somewhat surprising and bewildering that he left his door wild open. And, in some cases he was dead wrong. So, to set this argument on the right path, I’ll use a slogan from the recovery world ( a world where people have stumbled and are trying to find themselves and a new way of living) which reads "First Things First". In reference to Zoe Saldana playing the role of Nina Simone in the movie "Nina", there’s two basic points of contention. First, Zoe in "black-face", a term/words I do not like, nor understand, has many up in arms. Some have said it’s inappropriate. The immediate rebuttal is: Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland"! One more time "Oh the horror of his Oscar winning performance while wearing DARK-NEAR-BLACK-MAKEUP, no less." Obviously, one can conclude that not only was the make-up appropriate for that role, the film was deemed a success by those who didn’t let the opinions of others affect their film watching experience. That said, among open-minded mature individuals, the make-up issue is now a moot point. Moving forward, GETTHESENETS said Zoe does not have Nina’s Phenotype: bodytype, bodyshape ,skin tone, facial features of young or old Nina Simone. Other than skin tone, Getthesenets is absolutely wrong. If one takes the time to notice the pupillary distance (the black dots in the middle of your eyes) of each actress, they’d notice they are very similar. Their breast sizes are also very similar. The curves and width of their shoulders are damn near identical. Plus, without makeup it’s easy to see both of their noses have non-Europeon features. Additionally, their natural gait along with their height are very close. Needless to say, they have more in common than not. Lastly, this–> "Simone’s physical appearance in the times she lived in would have played a bigger part of her identity (and her art) than Day. Nina Simone’s look informed her art and identity much more than was the case for Lady Day." Are you sure about that? In the entertainment field, Billy Holiday was one of the first revolutionaries. Remember, she fought for the right of blacks to patronize the clubs they "worked’ in. Many of her songs spoke directly to her battles as a woman, a talented entertainer who happened to be beautiful and black. In fact, Nina covered one of her songs. And, it should be noted that Nina, for the most part, gave up the battle. She left the USA in 1970. So it’s safe to say Billy Holiday’s "look" informed her art and identity as much, or much more than was the case for Nina Simone. In Short, Getthesenets dropped ball on this one. He’ll be hard pressed to walk back his comments without conceding his boo-boos.

Solid E

This situation brings to light the challenges a filmmaker encounters when creating a film based on the life of a famous person. Will the finished product meet the approval of the heirs? If I were a filmmaker with the resources of Mr. Johnson I might stay clear of any and all biographies.


@Narrator, Eleanor implied that the backlash against Ross was for similiar reasons that there is a backlash against Saldana. I countered that as one of the most popular entertainers in the world she was cast as a draw in a vehicle produced by Berry Gordy.He hedged his bets on international superstar Diana Ross rather than an unknown actress who might have resembled Lady Day. I also pointed out that Nina Simone’s "look" and the time she lived in informed her art and identity much more than was the case for Lady Day.
Phenotype encompasses more than skin color. Phyliss Yvonne Stickney is maybe close to Nina’s complexion AND bodytype yet her facial features aren’t similar. S.Epatha Meckerson is close to Nina’s bodytype and facial features yet not same complexion. Zoe has neither the bodytype, bodyshape ,skin tone, facial features of young or old Nina Simone.Just from a physical standpoint, eithe rof the ladies mentioned would have been MORE believable in the role than Zoe. Even from a box office standpoint, casting Zoe doesn’t add up. I’ve not seen the King of Scotland, but Forest Whitacker was a respected veteran actor who at least had Idi Amin’s bodytype/bearing and somewhat similar facial features.


After savoring his win over Walter Gavin, GETTHESENETS stumbled in his call-out of Eleanor. Case in point, although Diana Ross was one of the biggest stars of the world, she acquired that status as a singer, not an actor, thus the backlash. Eleanor’s other basic point that you missed is, just like the negative comments PRECEDING "Lady Sings The Blues", those who are objecting to this film, have not seen it either. As Eleanor said, "Shame on us!". Lastly, reference your "phenotype" argument, I defer to BISON4LIFE’s excellent example of Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland". Oh the horror his Oscar winning performance while wearing dark, near-black makeup. Case closed.

Michael Ayandokun

JOY SHANNON: I think it’s a bit harsh to use the term "outsider". An intelligent white human can tell a black human story when and if they want to.

It is possible that people of any skin colour can get things wrong or might just not be talented or even right for the job.

The way i see things people should just let this film come out then let someone make another film about her. It’s not like you have to have just one film about an iconic person, Capote for example.




I just think this was a bad idea in its execution. I’m not going to make the argument that a white woman doesn’t have the right to make a film about a black woman. However, when the producers then hire a fair-skinned woman to portray a well-known singer and activist who was dark-skinned and had "broad" features, and then have the actress use blackface and a prosthesis, you are just asking for trouble.


I think it was very bad casting! Lauren Hill,Jennifer Holiday,Fantasia or even Eryica Badoo would have been better!

Paul Mitchell

Is it True Zoe S. Is WHITE Not Black. Hell to the No. You did not cast a Black Director/Writer/Star (DARK SKIN BLACK WOMEN). I AM SURE Great Grand Mothe/Grand mother /MOTHER would be turning in there GRAVe for what you done.i have a lot of respect for you before but you lost it know.i would to so God Bless You , but I will just say a pray for you.
23rd Psalmand M

Paul Mitchell

mr RobertJohnson as a owner or partner of BET you must have lSEEM sever pictures of MRS. N. S. And HEARD her RICH SOULFUL Voice. So was there a PROBLEM with your EYE’s & your HEARiNG when you chose the wrong LIGHT SKIN BLACK wOMEN who can sing a not or lip sing. If you had on Soul TRain or tThe Appolo Theatre she would be kick of the stage. Shame on you shouldc’ve know better.


Umpteen years ago I met Nina Simone at one of her music venues in Greenwich Village (Jazz Gallery?) as a guest of an artist friend named Nat Pinckney (sp?) who was painting (or had already painted) NS’s portrait. We were in her dressing room and NS recognizing that she and I had similar facial features (plus I also wore my hair in the same close-cropped afro at the time which prompted "fan" confusion on the street) began to discuss the "burden" of broad features in a fine-featured world of beauty standards. The discussion was basically one-sided as she ultimately lectured me about pride of self (having picked up on my insecurities I presume). The point of my post here is that NS was very conscious of her looks, i.e., of her African features and that factored broadly (pun intended) into her compositions, her interpretations, her BEHAVIOR, her love choices, etc. To suppress or alter her physicality in the telling of her story is to only give us 50% of the story (if that). I must say the film world is a minefield. Who MAKES these decisions anyway?

Mark and Darla

There was so many black actress who could have played this role without the brown mud pack, just don’t understand the reasoning. I can clearly understand the green mud pack for Jim Carey in ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ there no human with green skin. Shaking my head at the whole mess.


As a Black woman, film maker, and professional singer, this an insult to our race, history and culture. You’ve Al Jolson Nina Simone. Fake nose, fake skin color…You’ve just insulted every dark skinned sister saying that they’re not even good enough to portray the role of another dark skinned female. Back into the fields with your Black Skin, continue to suffer within. Nina Simone’s blackness was what she celebrated in her music. You’ve just raped her artistry, her soul and the essence of her entire being. Then you try and spoon feed us with this nonsense. Do you really think Nina Simone would be happy about this? A bunch of Stacy Dashes – Absolutely Clueless..


There are situations in the Black experience that only Black people can feel and accurately interpret. Songs written by Ms. Simone including but not limited to Young Gifted and Black, Mississippi Goddam and Revolution are grounded in the resilience, pride and dignity of Black people. The context of these great songs and the racism and discrimination Ms. Simone experienced and fought should be explored through the lens of a black filmmaker and the pen of a Black screenwriter as a conduit to showcase Ms. Simone’s genius, strength humanity, and the humanity of all Black people.


Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th century American showman and circus owner said "there’s no such thing as bad publicity." OH SH*T, are we being played? Is our heart fooling us? You know, sometimes we can love or want something so badly, we take our eyes off the prize and get lost along the way. My hand is raised, I got jacked by love. I love what I like to call "sweet drops of rest." I love a good thunderstorm. When it rains I sleep like a new born baby nursing on it’s mother’s breast milk. I am full and content and the world is my oyster. However, one day a thunderstorm caught me by surprise. I lived in a neighborhood surrounded by the farm implement companies, John Deere, International Harvester and The Case Company.The Companies raw materials and finished products were transported by railways and river barges. The barges could be a nuisance but I hated the trains. Every day there were hundreds of them passing through my neighborhood, blocking traffic. Having lived in the area for some time, I sort of became accustom to delays, sort of. On my usual route to work I had to cross three different train intersections but I had a B- plan because these were not small engines and several were used in unison to pull hundreds of box cars. Waiting for a train to pass could mean being late for work. Well, one day my long time lover, Mrs.Thunderstorm, didn’t love me anymore. She threw a wrench in my work schedule. One morning while I was on my way to work, my progress was impeded by trees in the street and downed power lines. I could weave through the down branches and drifting garbage cans but trains were stalled across several tracks. A tornado had come through overnight. I became annoyed waiting in line. I decided to take a different route. My lack of patience took me to a place I will never forget. I thought I’d be clever and go through the white part of town where the trains were not so prevalent. It was a longer route but I’d gain time if I didn’t get arrested for being a black man on the wrong side of the tracks…
and the wrong side of town. I turned a corner where I was stopped by a long line of cars. This time it was a funeral procession. The deceased was in a horse drawn carriage. He must have been very popular, there was five hundred followers. While waiting, I noticed a pay phone. I got out of my car and called my employer. I told him of my predicament. He suggested I take the morning off. I said cool. But as my patience wore thin, my curiosity peeked. I was wondering who is this person with so many friends? I decided to follow the procession to where ever they were going. I know, that’s not a smart move. After driving several miles it was obvious this was not your ordinary run of the meal type person. I found myself in a secluded area, more appropriate for a KKK rally than a funeral. I parked away from the gathering crowds and slowly approached them. They all were dressed in strange attire. Several were crying. One said if the deceased had only waited he’d still be alive. Others wondered if he jumped to his death. Stupid me, I stuck out like a sore thumb but I had to find out this person’s identity. I walked closer to the crowd who had gather around an open casket. At first I thought the person had died from a broken heart because I heard one saying "all of those doctors, all of those men couldn’t put him back together". When I heard another say he had no business going up there, I realized he had fallen to his death . Finally, as I was about to peek my head through the crowd to get a close-up look at the person, I heard children begin to sing. I thought I heard the words "king" and "horses", then I heard the sounds of car horns. The children continued:…" Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall… all the kings horse and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty back together
again". WHAT?! I was awaken by someone taping on my car window. WHAT!? I was asleep, still in my car waiting at the train tracks. The thought of a passing thunderstorm, my sweet drops of rest must have put me to sleep and my impatience took me on a ride to Humpty Dumpty’s funeral. So I agree, Robert Johnson is no fool and things are not always as they seem. *Chuckle*

Jean Ferrell

I won’t be watching it
I won’t be watching it

Jean Ferrell

That’s a damn shame Robert did that to this film. I know her family is so mad.

Roland S. Jefferson

It’s incredible to think that a black man as intelligent and successful as Robert Johnson would not understand the driving force that gave Nina Simone her voice: it was her African look! It was her rich black color, her broad nose, her thick lips and coarse hair handed down through generations! How could he not possibly understand that? How??? Zoe looks like a cartoon character with shoe polish! What a disservice to the legacy of Nina Simone! Bob Johnson needs a wake-up call if he intends to stay in the film industry and start associating with African American filmmakers.


@Eleanor, you are right to correct the person who referred to Saldana as a white actress. Your comparison of this backlash to that of Ross playing Lady Day is a bit offbase though. First Ross was one of the biggest stars in the WORLD at the time and film was produced by Berry Gordy, so it made sense that she was cast. Second, Simone’s physical appearance in the times she lived in would have played a bigger part of her identity (and her art) than Day. Casting person with a completely different phenotype to play such a revolutionary artist doesn’t make sense.


How about black filmmakers telling Black stories and not looking to make Ride Along 3 or another rom com with Sanaa, Micheal, Regina, Megan etc. Also Blackface in modern film is not new. Case in point Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland".


First of all, Zoe Saldana is not white. Secondly, we should not judge her performance based solely on her appearance. If you recall, the same backlash happened when we found out Diana Ross was playing Billie Holliday. When Diana finished that movie, we were upset that she did not get an Oscar! Shame on us!

Tasha Hanna

Black women are judged daily on hair and skin color most especially in the arts. The few spaces to tell our own story the superceding story is always that of continued erasure and opression. They should be ashamed trying to turn that back on their audience w this convenient blind casting they deliberately chose to carry.


Did the trailer strike anyone as looking somewhat low budget? This just seems symbolic of Johnson’s M.O., trying to do everything on the cheap. I remember that disagreement he and Michael Jordan had when Jordan was trying to manage Charlotte and Jordan complained that Johnson never wanted to spend any money. I mean, was Viola Davis too expensive?

Joy Shannon

I strongly agree that a Black woman should have written the script and directed the film. White filmmakers have to start searching their souls and STOP telling our stories. The trailer comes across like an outsider made the film — and she is. The performances look strong, but the trailer fails to capture the heart. Ms. Simone was like our African queen — broad nose, jet black skin, perfect pitch and a fighter. She was too special for an outsider to tell her story.


Robert Johnson ought to be ashamed of himself supporting that White woman who is portraying us Black women in "Blackface." an one of our Civil Rights icon (Nina) at that!! That’s what’s it’s all about. If it were a Back man being portrayed in "Blackface," how would Robert Johnson feel? Didn’t our parents, grandparents and Civil Rights organization fight to remove the "Blackface" image from school books, and media? Why let this White woman resurrect it?


I agree with Marie. Yet there are other problematical items to explore. Who is telling the story? The screenwriter/director is a white woman. If I recall correctly from my film school days and my days as a teacher of blacks in film, then her perspective colors (pun unintended but appropriate) how Nina Simone’s story is told. Even the trailer sniffs of crazy tropes: a man hired to help "save" a woman; and the crazed black female artiste. The film does an injustice to the realities of mental illness; the injustices Nina fought; and the complexity of her story. I have to believe that the elders are laughing somewhere as they see a beloved artist parodied – as they witness the history of blackface repeat itself.


Of course he avoids the point which is not that Saldana’s performance is being judged based on color (most of what I read praised her performance) but instead the choice of hiring her, then darkening her skin with makeup, is in direct opposition to the essence of the real-life person she’s portraying. I like Saldana and understand this was a huge career opportunity for her but I’m disappointed that she didn’t see a problem with having to wear brown face nor appreciates the reaction to it.

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