With a single tweet, the estate of musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone turned all eyes to “Nina” on Wednesday, asking the forthcoming biopic’s headliner, Zoe Saldana, to “take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.” The troubled Ealing Studios project, due in theaters April 22 from RLJ Entertainment, has returned Hollywood’s systemic exclusion of people of color to the tip of everyone’s tongue, less than a week removed from #OscarsSoWhite.
Indeed, the “Nina” controversy shows exactly why Hollywood needs a critical mass of diverse voices, from the audition room to the boardroom and everywhere in between — not simply for political or financial reasons, but also for artistic ones.
As early as 2012, the decision to cast Saldana as the “Mississippi Goddam” and “Sinnerman” singer provoked criticism from Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and the images of Saldana that emerged when the film’s trailer debuted this week confirmed Kelly’s worst fears. Wearing what British publication The Independent called “blackface,” Saldana — the bankable star of the “Star Trek” and “Avatar” franchises, among others — appears noticeably darker than her natural complexion, with her hair, facial features and teeth all modified to resemble Simone. The problem is, such colorism, reprising the long-standing prejudice against dark-skinned women in the worlds of fashion and entertainment, dishonors Simone’s legacy. As director Liz Garbus’ sterling “What Happened, Miss Simone?” makes clear, it was Simone’s radical presence as a proud, vocal woman of African descent that defined her activism, and transformed her into one of the movement’s most influential figures.
It may be that those involved in the production, which had been plagued by problems for years, simply allowed this facet of the casting decision to slip through the cracks — and that’s exactly the point. After all, it was Effie Brown, not Matt Damon, who spoke out against a script’s depiction of black sex workers on the most recent season of HBO’s “Project Greenlight.” It was basketball player Jeremy Lin and other Asian observers who drew attention to Chris Rock’s stereotypical, tone-deaf jokes on Oscar night.
One can only wonder what might have happened had someone cognizant of colorism’s long and upsetting history been in a position of power during the making of “Nina,” though HBO’s “Bessie” — also a period-set biopic of a black female performer — provides a clue. That film, directed by Dee Rees, made an explicit point of the so-called “brown paper bag test” and the tradition of skin-lightening and hair-straightening “beauty” regimes, only to slap the practice down.
Though it was surely unintentional, the furor caused by Saldana’s casting is a direct result of the limited perspectives of writer-director Cynthia Mort — who’s suing Ealing for cutting her out of the decision-making process on “Nina,” which she began developing in 2005 — casting director Heidi Levitt and the team of makeup artists responsible for transforming Saldana into Simone. (Kelly declined to blame Saldana for the casting misstep, while Saldana herself criticized the film’s “mismanagement” as being unworthy of the legendary singer.)
In short, “Nina” is the ultimate reflection of Hollywood’s system-wide failure to provide adequate opportunities to people of color, among other groups: A well-meaning portrait of a revolutionary black icon that stumbled onto offensive terrain by dint of unconscious whitewashing. As Simone’s estate noted on Twitter, the colorism of “Nina” need not have stemmed from hatred or overt racism to sting. The final product is still “[g]ut-wrenching, heartbreaking, nauseating, soul-crushing,” for the ignorance of history it reflects undermines the core message of the singer’s artistic and political career.