Nina + Zoe

From The Grio – For years, filmmaker Cynthia Mort sought to bring Nina Simone’s story to the screen, yet when the door finally opened, a wave of anticipation and controversy mounted before production even began.

The upcoming film Nina, aimed for release this year, will be Mort’s first feature length film project, and the first narrative centered on the famed singer and civil rights activist, played by A-list actress Zoe Saldana.

The choice to cast Saldana stands at the center of a debate over the film. Those displeased with Saldana’s selection have petitioned for Mort to recast the part. Celebrities such as India.ArieAretha Franklin, and even Simone’s daughter (a noted jazz singer) have voiced concerns over the choice.

Critics feel that Saldana does not adequately resemble Simone, who was known for celebrating her strong African features.

Director: Surprised by backlash

Mort is not offended by the backlash, only surprised. She wants the public to give Nina a chance.

“This was a creative endeavor, and to judge and to hijack a creative endeavor before it’s finished is the only thing I take any issue with,” the director told theGrio. ”When it’s done you can say whatever you want.”

Yet, Mort understands the public’s need to share strong emotions about Nina‘s casting. It’s something the diva would have done herself.

“It’s fine. They should,” she said. “Nina was about how you feel. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was about some of the stuff that’s going on, but that’s not my business,” Mort added.

Rehashing the backlash

Nina Simone constantly stressed the beauty of her African attributes, and chronicled her struggle towards accepting that beauty in her work.

With her Dominican and Puerto Rican roots, Saldana’s narrow features and light skin tone require her to use dark makeup and a prosthetic nose to embody the musician.

Some believe these acts contradict Nina Simone’s message as an artist who was outspoken against colorism, discrimination based on skin tone favoring lighter blacks.

As prospects for black actresses with deep brown skin tend to be fewer than for those with paler complexions, some believe that by not selecting a darker actress to play a deep brown woman, this movie hypocritically fails to counter colorism when it would have been the most appropriate to do so.

Acknowledging dissenting voices

Mort acknowledges these voices with sensitivity, but emphasized that her story of Simone is not a “strict biopic.” It is more about the love connection and relationships that fueled her life. For that nuanced portrayal, Saldana was an ideal choice.

“Zoe’s life vision is very clear, and very strong and very direct,” Mort said of Saldana. “She’s a fantastic actress. She’s brave. She’s courageous and she’s super-talented. She’s astonishing in all of her films, which I don’t say lightly. I think Zoe embodies a lot of the characteristics [that] I was looking for. She’s compelling and she’s fierce and she’s strong and she pulls us in the way Nina’s music pulls us in. You know what? That’s hard to come by.”

Addressing critics specifically, Mort said, “What everyone has to remember is that ‘Four Women,’ which everyone has to remember is one of [Nina’s] most powerful songs, is about different shades of four different women.”

Saldana’s tone and our potential acceptance of her tone in this role might be in alignment with Nina’s message of acknowledging the rainbow hues of black women in this song, Mort suggests.

Why Zoe Saldana was the right choice

Mort understands why the color issue is vital, but does not see herself as the spokesperson for that angle of Nina’a story. “So, I don’t want to minimize at all the place Nina holds for many women – women of color, all women, all people, all minorities. But you go with whom you think can best do the performance the role requires.”

Zoe is the best actress for this more emotional performance, Mort believes.

“There are different considerations all the time, but I think Nina’s more than just one thing,” she explained. “She was about not defining people by their color and about being proud, but I don’t want to speak for those things because that’s a very private feeling for people. It’s not up for me to do that.”

Working with a small budget and supported by a determined team, Mort and Saldana seem grateful that the project has at last come to fruition.

“It’s been interesting, but I feel very good about it,” Mort said.

(Continue Reading @ The Grio…)

  • Chika

    Usually I’m more eloquent but all I can say is “Bullshit, Cynthia Mort. Bull. Shit.”

  • Ash

    I know people harbored a lot of anger towards Zoe for the casting but I’ve always been annoyed with the director and this article does not change my mind one bit. Seems like Zoe was picked because she’s the type of A-list actress that would bring attention to the movie. Even with that goal in mind, there are other options that would actually look like Nina Simone. I love Zoe as an actress but this casting annoys me.

  • sixfoota

    Over it!

  • youandme

    We are still talking about this?

  • AgeRi

    “Critics feel that Saldana does not adequately resemble Simone, who was known for celebrating her strong African features.”
    Umm, that ain’t the only gripe! But yes, casting an actress with features like those of Dr. Simone is extremely important given that Nina Simone embraced her attributes at a time when prototypically West African features weren’t seen as beautiful. More significant to me, however, is the fact that Saldana claims that “there is no such thing as people of color,” while Nina Simone embraced (her) blackness in a climate that was violently anti-black.

  • Apple

    Get over it. It’s happening , writing article and petitions won’t stop it now. In fact your help fueling the fire , people who had no interest in this will go to see what the fuss is about. Want a movie done correct then do it yourself

  • MimiLuvs

    I wasn’t angry/ticked off aboutthe choice in actors. The things that made me go ‘hmmmm…?’were the movie’s supposed plot and the fact that the casting director(s) chose a young actress to portray an older woman (with the help of prosthetics) rather than hire an actress, who was older.

  • ebtci006

    If this isn’t a “strict biopic”, then there would be no need to darken her skin and give her a prosthetic nose.
    I agree with another commentor. They used Zoe because she will bring much attention to this movie because she is an A-lister and that is it.

  • Liddy

    The most powerful thing we (those who believe the casting choice is bs) is to not see the film. I personally plan on having a house party opening night dedicated to Nina Simone. There will be wine, food and a true honor to the legend.

  • Liddy

    I couldn’t agree more. Having Zoe Saldana play Nina is like having Beyonce play Aretha Franklin. It cheapens the memory and really show how out of touch the director is!

  • Lola

    ICAM They chose Zoe because she’s a A-lister media magnet and Zoe is probably hoping for an Oscar nomination as the Oscar voting panel loves biopic.

  • stellaxo

    “Zoe’s life vision is very clear, and very strong and very direct,” Mort said of Saldana. “She’s a fantastic actress. She’s brave. She’s courageous and she’s super-talented. She’s astonishing in all of her films, which I don’t say lightly. I think Zoe embodies a lot of the characteristics [that] I was looking for. She’s compelling and she’s fierce and she’s strong and she pulls us in the way Nina’s music pulls us in.”

    Sounds like Mort should have done a biopic on Saldana, rather than Nina Simone.

  • ArabellaMichaela

    Agreed. I dont know what race Cynthia Mort is or how old she is (did not google her). But she clearly does not get how offensive this is, especially to those of us who Nina’s legacy. (Personally, I love to listen to Nina’s CDs in my car).
    First, many of us do not want to see some actress portraying Nina Simone wearing blackface makeup, LIKE A MINSTREL. Second, “Casting 101″ teaches that you try to find a great actress who looks like the character. If you can’t find one who physically resembles the character, then you try to find one who “evokes” the character by some indescribable personal attribute. Nothing about Zoe Sadana screams Nina Simone, in any way. It’s bizarre casting. There is also the suspicion that this would not be done by Hollywood in casting for another race.

  • BeanBean

    Not buying any of it. They need to come out and say that they cast Zoe because they wanted to make money, and Zoe is desperate for an Oscar nomination, which she isn’t going to get. If they were going to cast someone that looked nothing like Nina, they could’ve picked Kerry Washington, at least we know she can act lol.

  • leelah

    This director had the nerves to say that people were highjacking her creative endeavor…sorry when you do a biography the creative endeavor doesn’t belong to you. If anyone has ownership, its her family and the fans…way before some random director who bought a little piece of nina’s story from her butler.-My one issue with this movie is a singer should’ve been casted so the music could be a focus of this story. Nina’s music was revoluntionary and it would’ve been cool to see it remixed for the big screen by a voice who could do it justice. That decision not to cast a singer highlights that the director and production team are not right for this movie, the soundtrack could’ve been a major source of revenue and publicity for the movie and actually launched the singer’s career. On a sidenote Meshelle Ndegeocello just released an album of Nina Simon’s music, she’s on youtube giving life to some of those songs.

  • Kelley Johnson

    I actually like Zoe, but this movie needs to flop and flop hard.

  • jay cee

    I will personally boycott the movie.

  • i’m awake

    Hollywood has taken everything that was Black and sacred; removed any and all traces of blackness, exploited it, raped and left it for dead.

  • Mademoiselle

    I feel bad that Nina’s memory is being attached to such hoopla. It kind of reminds me of Obama calling Attorney General Harris to apologize for creating a controversy over complimenting her. If it were me, it would bother me to be the source of a colorism controversy with Nina’s name all over it. At some point, it’s not about what you believe (whether Obama was just kidding, or whether Zoe is the biggest Nina fan alive). At some point, you recognize that your vehement stance may be causing more harm than good, and you do what’s necessary to quell the discord. Yet, it seems that Zoe and Cynthia are stuck on making some kind of point. All the best to them both (that might not be very heartfelt from me), but I won’t be supporting their efforts.

  • MimiLuvs

    I thought that I was the only person who thought that she was doing this for an Oscar nomination.
    For me, the motivation seems so clear.

  • Kellogg Liberbaum

    “Saldana’s narrow features and light skin tone” … She has neither of these.

  • The Other Jess

    Thank you!

  • ImJustSaying

    Her features are clearly more narrow and lighter than Nina’s features. So in this context, yes,she has both of those.

  • ImJustSaying

    In comparison to Nina’s feature’s her nose is more narrow and her skin is lighter. Nina is chocolate Zoe is caramel.

  • The Other Jess

    What are “strong African features”? Nina Simone didn’t look like many of the ethnic groups in Africa. Africa is a continent with many various looks, not a country with one ethnic group that all look the same.

  • The Other Jess

    Apple hit it on the head.

  • BriA

    Truth…..she only chose Zoe because she thought more people would come see the movie honestly and she probably thought oh she’s the “it” black girl of the moment lets cast her smh – if she would have chosen Dawn -don’t know her name but she’s a damn good actress lol- from Mad Men it would have been just fine

  • AgeRi

    Ask The Griot, since those are her words.

  • talaktochoba

    this is so wrong on so many fronts…

    first, Zoe has no more business playing Nina than Diana Ross did Billie Holiday, and for precisely the same attitude and appearance reasons;

    like Billie before her, Nina was a fighter for her people and even moreso for her authentic beauty;

    both fought on their feet, whereas Zoe clearly prefers the OJ Simpson/casting couch route;

    that sets progress for black actresses back at least 60 years, to the times of James Mason/Otto Preminger and Dorothy Dandridge, when black actresses virtually had no choice but the acting couch;

    the fact that Zoe needs to be made up to even pretend to appear “darker” should be a red light warning harkening back to the days people like Bing Crosby put on blackface and did pitiful imitations of minstrel shows in theatres black people couldn’t even get into;

    not even so superior an artist as Bessie Smith could break the colour barrier even in race (black) films of the period, and the one movie Billie Holiday did, “Storyville”, the producers insisted she wear blackface to DARKEN her complexion on camera;

    even Spike Lee gave in to the NOI and recast the lead for “Malcolm X” when it was found Larry Fishburn was homosexual, a move which may have cost him the best picture Oscar;

    there is simply no, zero, nada, zilch justification socially, politically, economically, aesthetically, or acting ability to so badly miscast a lead about so important a black woman–unless there’s white money behind it;

    that would only set black actresses back 40 years, to the days of blaxploitation movies…

    what next–Kimmy Cakes cast as lead in a movie about Miriam Makeba?

  • justanotheropinion

    Sometimes eloquence takes the form of complete honesty. You met that definition. Thank you.

  • Teflon Jawn (@Author_JGail)

    I’m actually surprised that she was surprised at the reactions. Anytime you have to modify someone’s skin tone or features… you might want to pump the breaks! From a marketing standpoint it seems to alienate a large portion of the potential audience, but hey it is her movie, her money, her choice.

  • Teflon Jawn (@Author_JGail)

    Nice idea!

  • Ms. Vee

    If this doesn’t prove why we need to segregate, nothing will. I don’t see any of these producers using Mariah Carey to play Marilyn Monroe. Nonetheless this is old news and talk is useless. No money will be coming out of my pocket…i wont even watch it bootleg. Now on to more important black issues.

  • thinkingcap

    Zoe Saldana is really not that light-skinned, nor does she have narrow features.

    I think we should be honest here. Saldana looks like the average black American woman to me. I’ve seen that face on black Americans plenty of times. I never would have thought she was Latina.

    Nina Simone’s look was extraordinary for a black American. Not many American blacks look like her. After all the race mixing from the past 400 years, many blacks in this country do not have the “strong African features” of Nina Simone.

    Now, I understand this rubs many the wrong way. What does a “typical” black American look like versus a “typical” Latino? It’s a ludicrous question when you consider the diversity found within EACH group.

    I won’t be watching this film anyway. I can’t stand biopics. Documentaries are always so much better.

  • pinklipstick227

    Bottom line: Zoe Saldana looks nothing like Nina Simone. That’s why Saldana has to wear black face and a prosthetic nose to play the part.

    Also, there is no such thing as an average Black American look. Members of the entire African Diaspora are represented here. That is too diverse of a population to state that there is an average black american look.

  • pinklipstick227

    This. Everyday of the week.

  • beejcee

    Actually, Meshelle could have been cast for the part and there would have been very little back lash. A-list plus hoping for an Oscar is what is going on, that is all! (To Clutch: the first few words of my comment are blurred, not the first time please advise, thanks.

  • texaschainsawlovin’

    I have been tracking this b.s. of a film since the time it was announced. So here was my reaction to this entire film. Especially with Zoe Saldana as lead role.

  • copelli

    Listen, Zoe is the Hollywood’s “IT girl of color” right now. I am sure the director is just grateful that she could get an actress of her caliber into this film. It’s a relatively small film in comparison to other film budgets that now has a big star attached to it. It will help the bottom line and I am sure it helped in getting the film made. Zoe’s bread & butter at this point.

    Are there brown-skinned actresses out there just as talented as Zoe that could do justice to this role, of course they are. But when was the last time you saw a brown skinned woman (not a man dressed as a woman) as the lead in a non-indie film. I’ll wait…….

    There’s a fracas about this because we don’t very often get films made about us and now you have this opportunity to have this story told about his phenomenal black woman who celebrated and reveled in her beautiful brown being……and a lighter skinned latina is chosen for the role. Sorry, but I would have loved to see a brown-skinned sister given the opportunity to represent on the big screen. Maybe if there were more opportunities for black actresses period, you wouldn’t have as much backlash, but the roles, especially good roles are sparse. And this is a good role.

  • The Other Jess

    I agree, thinking cap. Saldana looks like any regular black girl. She is a regular black girl – just of Latin extraction. I don’t see the big deal, especially since so many famous black americans throughout history have originally had parentage from Latin America and the caribbean. why all the fuss now? it’s a bad look for black people to be up in arms over such nonsense.

  • Mike

    Nina Simone was NOT a dark skin woman. She was a brown skin woman with African features. If you look at more recent color pictures of her as an older woman you all would know that. Furthermore, her daughter looks to be Bi-racial. I guess you all would also have a problem with her daughter portraying her mom. lol

  • Mary J

    I’ll “Wesley Snipes” this movie, which means if I’m really interested, I’ll only watch a bootleg version.

  • nerdstradamas

    Less attention to this train wreck.

    More attention to Taye Hansberry, Numa Perrier, Isae Rae, and Jaleel White’s upcoming Lorraine Hansberry project.

    The Nina Simone biopic won’t have my attention or my dollars.

  • Lillian Mae

    Your Dollars–the only effective way to vote

  • talaktochoba

    Lillian and Dramas, right you are–it only depends now on what Zoe’s legion of white fanboys do;

    and as for getting it bootleg, $2 is about $1.98 too much…

  • talaktochoba

    um, Mike, you may wish to check on the over-development of the pictures you have because Nina was 110% authentic D&L–that’s Dark and Lovely, Mike;

    like so many entertainers, her sexual appetites were voracious as her performances intense, so it’s surprising only one of her consorts rang her bell;

    does it really matter which one?

    clearly she was satisfied with her lovers, if not her love life–also a familiar theme dating back through so many black female performers even to before Bessie Smith, so we have no reason not to be;

    and from all accounts, she raised a daughter any parent would be proud of, who fights for her mom’s honour to this day;

    first Alicia, now Nina–goodness, Mike, whatcha got against black women, son?

  • talaktochoba

    Jess and thinking cap, you really need veto close up the magazines, shut down the DVD and go take a walk in an inner city, then through the Spanish-speaking section;

    then you would know Zoe no more resembles the average black/Spanish-speaking young woman than Cameron Diaz does the average barely black Spanish speaking woman;

    Zoe is a Hollywood creation, a caricature of what white males fantasize all black women look like;

    of course, we all know d**n near EVERY male in the world wet dreams about Serena;

    now why wasn’t she picked to play Nina?

    try tell me THAT movie wouldn’t make MAD BIG MONEY?!!

  • Mike

    Go look at the color photos of her. Almost all of them she brown skin

  • talaktochoba

    copelli, it is not just her features, it is her OJ Simpson ATTITUDE towards black people she clearly wishes to disassociate herself from–the exact antithesis of Nina Simone;

  • talaktochoba words could’ve said it better;

  • Makro

    Keep that up and their won’t be any movies about blacks

Latest Stories

Why Oiling Your Scalp May Not Be Such A Bad Idea


Nigerian Officials Confirm Release of 44 Abducted School Girls


Watch: ‘Black People Mate’ a Parody About the Ridiculous Stats on Black Women & Dating


University President Under Fire for Wanting to Make School Less White In the Future

More in nina simone, the grio
Issa Rae to Play Nina Simone in New Lorraine Hansberry Biopic
Issa Rae Takes On The Role Of Nina Simone In New Lorraine Hansberry Biopic

Ramarley Graham
Ramarley Graham and the wailing cry of injustice