Director Cynthia Mort’s passion project about Nina Simone hits theaters next week, but while she may have wanted to create a film that honors one of her musical heroes, the controversy surrounding the casting of Zoe Saldana threatens to undermine whatever Mort hopes to accomplish.
In a must-read interview with Buzzfeed, Mort and Nina producers open up about why chose the Dominican actress, given the wealth of other capable options and her lack of resemblance to Simone.
While Mort said picking Saldana “was a creative decision,” she acknowledged she needed a bankable star in order to help fund her small independent film.
“Certainly I would not have cast Zoe if I felt she was wrong for the role in a million years. Zoe’s amazing. She’s amazing in the movie,” Mort said. “She gave her all. She’s honest, she’s courageous, she’s fierce.”
She continued: “For me, Zoe was a creative decision. However, long before I met Zoe, there were other people considered who were not acceptable to financiers. And for Barnaby [Thompson] to say anything other than that is incorrect.”
Thompson, one of Nina’s producers, disagreed with Mort’s assessment that bankability had anything to do with picking Saldana since the project was a “low-budget indie movie.”
“There is a narrative that seems to be running in some of the coverage of the film, which is suggesting that we were making decisions driven by commercial reasons. And I think it should be very clear that this is a low-budget indie movie. The budget was just over $7 million,” he explained.
According to Thompson, Saldana ticked the right boxes for Nina’s backers, but he didn’t explain what those requirements were.
“The decision to hire Zoe was that she ticked the quite stringent boxes that required ticking in a way that very few other actresses did,” he said. “I read about this movie like it’s in a parallel universe, like it was a big Hollywood film. Like we all thought we were going to make millions — no one ever thought that they were going to make millions out of this story!”
By far the biggest criticism of the project is Saldana’s appearance. Once the initial images of the Dominican actress made up to look like Simone hit the web, many accused Nina’s filmmakers of putting Saldana in blackface. The harsh criticism angered Mort, a self-described “a radical feminist who is aware of anyone who is disenfranchised or marginalized.”
“It pisses me off on that level,” Mort said. “As a creative person, is it important? Yes. But also what’s important is to find a way to tell the truth in a narrative film. It’s not a documentary. You can go online and see 225 videos of Nina Simone, and everybody should. But that’s not what this is.”
Thompson, who’s white like Mort, said they “did what we thought was right.”
“Listen, what we did was the same as has been done in a hundred movies, and is done all the time. It’s hard to answer these questions, because this is a political debate and I’m not a politician, I’m a filmmaker,” he explained. “We did what we thought was right to tell the story. Other people have to speak to the politics of it. If people feel strongly about these things, I’m not going to deny them their feelings. It’s difficult to know, and I don’t want to be disrespectful.”
Many would argue the entire project is disrespectful to Simone and her legacy, but at the end of the day, Mort–who ended up suing Thompson and the production company for re-editing the film, said she’s an artist.
“I’m an artist — and people can kill me for it, I don’t give a shit,” Mort said, but also acknowledged that sometimes art isn’t what matters to those in charge.
“Everyone’s going to say, ‘Just go tell them to fuck themselves.’ Well, you do. But it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, this isn’t the ’70s. Or even the ’80s. Because right now, the movie business is concerned with one color, and that’s green.”
Read the entire profile over on Buzzfeed.