Casting and skin color are at the heart of a controversy surrounding a new movie about the legendary singer Nina Simone. The movie hasn't been released yet, but the casting of Afro-Latina actor Zoe Saldana in the lead has caused an uproar from some Simone fans and family members.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Casting and skin color are at the heart of the controversy surrounding a new movie about a legendary singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NINA")
ZOE SALDANA: (As Nina Simone) Do you know who I am?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, my mother used to listen to you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As announcer) Nina Simone.
SIEGEL: Afro-Latino actor Zoe Saldana plays Simone, and that casting choice has caused an uproar from fans and family members, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: First, the real Nina Simone, a classically-trained pianist, versatile singer and songwriter, unwavering civil rights activist.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NINA SIMONE: The name of this tune is "Mississippi Goddam."
BLAIR: With this 1964 song, Nina Simone gave voice to the rage African-Americans were feeling about the brutality of racism.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")
SIMONE: (Singing) Alabama's got me so upset. Tennessee made me lose my rest and everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.
BLAIR: Nina Simone was called the high priestess of soul. Books, documentaries and plays have all tried to tell her story. When it was announced that Zoe Saldana would play her in the feature film, some of Simone's fans and family members cried, wrong choice. Saldana has markedly lighter skin than Nina Simone. The movie hasn't been released yet, but in the trailer you can see that Saldana's physical features were transformed. She's wearing a prosthetic nose. Her skin has been darkened with makeup.
SAM WAYMON: I call it blackface.
BLAIR: Sam Waymon is a musician and one of Nina Simone's brothers. He says the filmmakers did not consult with him or anyone else in the family.
WAYMON: How can you look at a Nina Simone and then paint another person's skin darker to play that person that you're supposed to be telling the truth about? I mean, that's very, very insulting. It's disrespectful.
BLAIR: In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece that went viral criticizing the choice. The singer India Arie called the casting tone deaf. A wave of social media criticism hit Zoe Saldana for taking the role. Saldana self-identifies as Latina and black. Her father is Dominican, her mother is Puerto Rican. In a 2013 interview with the website HipHollywood, she stood up for herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SALDANA: I'm doing it for my sisters, I'm doing it for my brothers. And I don't care who tells me that I am not this and I am not that. I know who I am and I know what Nina Simone means to me. So that is my truth and that set me free.
CYNTHIA MORT: Zoe is fierce and reckless and courageous and committed, and those are all the things Nina was.
BLAIR: Cynthia Mort is the writer and director of "Nina." She adamantly defends Saldana for her skills as an actor. She also says making movies is a business and Saldana is a bankable star. That matters a lot to a movie's financiers who want a return on their investment.
MORT: So while they don't make the final decision, they certainly set parameters.
BLAIR: Mort also stands by the decision to darken Saldana's skin on creative grounds.
MORT: You help an actor inhabit a character. There are many, many, many, many movies that have done the same thing, whether it's Nicole Kidman's nose or, you know, Leo's - whatever he did for J. Edgar Hoover.
MIA MASK: It's just not, you know, the same situation.
BLAIR: Not the same, says Vassar professor Mia Mask, because of Hollywood's long history of demeaning African-Americans. Mask is the author of "Divas On Screen: Black Women In American Film." She says the practice of having a lighter-skinned actress darken her skin has an ugly past dating back to the 1930s. Some black actresses were told to darken their skin even in movies with predominantly black casts.
MASK: The industry was concerned that if an actress looked too fair-skinned and people thought it was a white actress, it would be offensive to white audiences to see a white woman being intimate with a black man or black people on screen.
BLAIR: Nina Simone's struggles with the entertainment industry's beauty standards, says Mask, were emblematic of so many African-Americans. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in The Atlantic, even today Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")
SIMONE: (Singing) When you feel really low, yeah, there's a great truth that you should know. When you're young, gifted and black, your soul's intact. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.