I’m pretty sure many of you have heard about the controversy surrounding the upcoming movie based on the legendary Jazz singer Nina Simone…Before I give my thoughts please continue below… I know it’s long but it makes for a fascinating read.
I’ve copied and pasted specific excerpts from the open letter written by Aaron Overfield, website content manager for ninasimone.com to read the full letter, click here…
…The script, written by Latin American writer and first time director Cynthia Mort, is based in a series of lies. That is our starting point. Cynthia calls this her “artistic license.” Under that umbrella what Cynthia is implying is that she can pretty much do whatever the hell she wants and she doesn’t have to listen to anyone. Cynthia has focused her story on Nina’s relationship with her personal assistant, Clifton Henderson, himself a controversial person in Nina’s life. Well before Nina’s death, before talks about a movie, there were issues expressed about Clifton’s intentions regarding Nina and his efforts to seemingly keep her isolated. He was around Nina for the last few years of her life. He can be seen with her in a filming of Nina’s concert in Brazil in 2000, during shots of Nina being interviewed in a boat.
After Nina’s death, Clifton sold his story to Cynthia and that became the basis for the movie. So, a (controversial) personal assistant’s relationship with Nina Simone for the very last few years of her life somehow became the focal point of the first ever Nina Simone movie. Moreover, that controversial relationship became fictionalized by Cynthia Mort by her writing the relationship as a romantic one (putting Nina in the role as sexual aggressor and as emotionally needy).
As has been stated before but is worth repeating: Clifton Henderson was a gay man. He was an out gay man. I met him at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem during Nina’s memorial service. He was neither a heterosexual male nor a man that Nina Simone had any kind of romantic relationship with. This might be a forgivable “fiction” for Cynthia to slip in if not for how many other fictions and whitewashings are built around this tale. Would Cynthia Mort be pleased with someone rewriting her own history to the point where her sexuality becomes a trivialized inconvenience?…
…If the script and filmmaker and anyone behind the film were interested in telling the story of NINA SIMONE, this entire thing would’ve been different from the beginning and we wouldn’t be forced to look at what we’re now being forced to look at. There wouldn’t be such an outcry and there wouldn’t be so much disgust, anger, pain, and heartbreak.
Discussions over Zoe being or not being “black enough” are the most heated and the most prevalent. While I understand this, I think it deals only with the symptom of what is going on rather than the underlying gentrification of Nina’s identity itself. I would argue that if the script accurately reflected Nina Simone – the true, very real, very raw Nina – it would’ve taken a different direction entirely and we would not be forced to look at Zoe Saldana in black(er)face and prosthetics. If they were telling the true story of Nina Simone, Zoe would not have ended up in this role.
Imagine if you will, telling the story of Nina Simone as a dark-skinned little girl with what are considered African features and phenotype (her hair, her nose, her lips, etc). Imagine that is the focus of the story we are going to tell in this film. It’s not hard to imagine it since that IS the story of NINA SIMONE. Anyone who knows anything about Nina Simone knows that the manifestation of her race, her features, her sex, and her personality clashed with societal norms in such a way that she struggled against them her entire life and it shaped her career and her spirit. It’s not hard for us to imagine telling her story using that struggle as the reference point because that was Nina Simone. Given that focus, given the focus on Nina’s fire of a spirit in fighting for beautiful dark skinned and wide nosed black women, how in the world could they have cast Zoe Saldana, only then to darken her and widen her nose?
Can you imagine Zoe all made up like she’s been, playing up on the big screen acting out and singing about Nina’s struggles against racism, colorism, her appearance, and being exploited and marginalized because of those things? Can you imagine how much of a parody that would turn into, as the audience sits back and, knowing what Zoe actually looks like, becomes so confused by what efforts have been taken to make Zoe look like Nina that they are distracted from the actual story? Would it even make any sense? Wouldn’t they wonder why Zoe ever got the role in the first place since that contradicts the entire nature of the movie – the entire nature of Nina’s life – and wouldn’t they sense the hypocrisy? Would it make ANY sense?
The very casting of Zoe itself was based in the still present subtleties of racism, colorism, and beauty standards. The fact that Zoe ended up being approached for the role (which might make sense considering Cynthia Mort is Latin American), is indicative of the same system that Nina fought her entire life. It shows the entire movie has been misguided from the beginning and Cynthia Mort’s “artistic license” is no more than a spit in the face of Nina’s legacy.
I would also argue this…
People who say that Zoe’s complexion and features shouldn’t matter are ignoring the fact that they are going to such lengths to darken her skin and change her features, thereby proving those things DO matter. Since Zoe was approached for this film, it has to make you wonder why she was ever approached in the first place. Given the history of Nina Simone: her pride in being a dark skinned woman with her features while lamenting treatment based on skin tone (give Four Women a listen), plus her desire to inspire younger women with similar features – why was Zoe ever approached in the first place?
They’re not actually making a movie about the real Nina Simone.
We’re not going to stop this movie from happening. And people will continue to claim there’s nothing wrong with it or we should wait and see or we should just stop all the complaining.
Nina recognized injustice, and Nina never shut up.
So should we, and neither should we.
- My Thoughts: To say that I am surprised would be a lie. For whatever reason many people today believe that things like racism, colorism etc no longer exist in the year 2012. I shake my head every time I hear this. The fact the director rather find a light skin woman and attempt to darken her and apply a prosthetic nose on her; rather than cast a dark skin actress blows my mind. For the people who say maybe she was the best for the role that’s a bull if I ever heard it. I really don’t feel the need to say anymore because Mr. Overfield did such an amazing job saying what I wanted to say. FYI, I will not be supporting this movie when it comes out and I hope it goes straight to DVD…