No one can ever fill legendary singer Nina Simone‘s shoes, so whoever was going to play her in an inevitable biopic had a daunting, if not impossible task to begin with. No matter who was going to be cast would be faced with the questions of, “Can she sing like Nina?” (probably not), “Does she look enough like Nina?” (probably not), “Can she capture the essence of a woman who was a pivotal, important entertainer and figure during the 60s and throughout history?” (probably not).
Actress Zoe Saldana already had the chips stacked against her when she signed on to play the “My Baby Just Cares For Me” crooner, but the backlash was almost immediate. When it was announced that the 34-year-old Star Trek star would take the lead in Nina, a film that chronicles the life and legacy of Simone, there was fury around the Internet that Saldana — a woman of Domincan and Puerto Rican descent — should not be playing the iconic African American artist. (Mary J. Blige was originally attached to the project, but dropped out).
From an online petition to “replace Zoe Saldana with an actress who actually looks like Nina Simone” (to date, it has over 10,000 supporters) to blog posts calling out Hollywood for giving a “mainstream look” for its black stars, it looked as though Nina (which is being brought to the big screen by Cynthia Mort and also stars David Oyelowo) and Saldana, especially, was becoming a symbol for everything the cultural icon Simone stood against.
Even Simone’s own daughter had reservations about the decision, telling Ebony, “As an actress I respect her process, but I also know that there are many actresses out there, known or not, who would be great as my mother. The one actress that I’ve had in my heart for a very long time, whose work I’m familiar with already, is Kimberly Elise. Many people have spoken to me about Viola [Davis]. I love her look. I love her energy. Both of the actresses that I’ve mentioned are women of color, are women with beautiful, luscious lips and wide noses, and who know their craft. I also have no problem introducing someone we’ve never heard of before who can play my mother.”
Saldana, who graces the cover of the May issue of Latina magazine, opened up about the controversy surrounding her casting. Saldana, who said in the cover story interview that the negative response has had an impact on her, plainly stated: “The reality is that nobody knows the story as to why this collaboration came to be — nobody knows the full story — and at the end of the day all I’m going to say is that every person that is a part of this project came together for no other reason than the unconditional love for Nina Simone’s music, her persona, her life, what she did, what she left for us, what her music still continues to do not only to women, but to Americans, and African Americans, and also people of color, just everything. On all spectrums, Nina Simone’s story is worth telling and with the members that it came to be, like it’s just…you have to give it a chance.”
Of course, even with the online scrutiny, Hollywood will likely still have her side on this one, in the end: look no further than controversial casting decisions like Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kinglsey in Gandhi for evidence of that. The actress — who also opens up in the piece about her alleged post-Avatar mental breakdown (“That was completely blown out of proportion”) — added that the naysayers should “Watch it and then make up your mind” and that she has “no regrets” about making the film and how the long-in-the-works project took shape.
[Photo credit: Latina Magazine]