by Arbed Cancel
Getty Images/Jack Robinson
It’s safe to say that Black History Month 2020 has had a momentous start, from Google’s epic commercial, to Jay Z and Beyonce’s sitting for the national anthem during the Super Bowl. We even got to witness Joaquin Phoenix addressing systemic racism during his BAFTA acceptance speech. Though we’ve seemed to be getting it “right” lately does not mean we can double back on how many times we’ve gotten it wrong. Streaming services have definitely been making it their business to put their black shows and movies on the forefront this month. “Nina” the biopic of legendary Jazz singer, songwriter, classical pianist and civil rights activist, Nina Simone is one of the many Hulu streaming services is highlighting this month.
There is no question, Nina Simone is the embodiment of black history. Known for her resounding sound and her political expression. Her talents were discovered early on as her parents noticed she was able to play piano by ear at the tender age of three. With aspirations to be a pioneer as a black female classical pianist she studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City. She later applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, in which she was not accepted and she connected it to the fact that she was black. In order to make a living, she started playing in nightclubs but was told that she could only play if she sang vocals alongside her accompaniment. This cemented her as a jazz singer and the rest is of course history.
She’d go on to make 40 albums in her entire four-decade career with classics such as “I Loves You Porgy”, “To Be Young Gifted and Black” and “I Put a Spell on You”. She was so eclectic in her sound, channeling genres like jazz, pop, folk and classical music. She showed dimension by releasing love songs as well as political songs. She is famously quoted saying, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.”
With a black woman so talented part of Black History one would argue how come there was never a biographical movie on the Nina Simone story earlier on. Well that question would be answered with the 2016 release of “Nina” a film directed by Cynthia Mort, with actress Zoe Saldana cast to portray Ms. Simone. The movie was not one of the life and times of Nina Simone, but focused on her last few years while highlighting her as a mentally unstable alcoholic.
The film was greeted by much controversy mainly due to the casting. Zoe, who is a lot lighter than Nina Simone was, is seen on screen sporting darker makeup and a prosthetic nose. The trailer alone sent twitter into a complete frenzy. The most infamous tweet of them all being from the verified twitter Nina Simone estate account responding to Saldana tweeting a quote of the legendary singer. “Cool story but please take Nina’s name out of your mouth. For the rest of your life.” read the tweet.
In an interview with Time magazine, Simone Kelly who is Nina’s only offspring it was confirmed that no family member is in charge of the estate account. That access was given to a family member years ago to manage the account along with the estate’s Facebook account. Kelly went on to say in the interview that she does not have any ill feelings towards Zoe Saldana for depicting her mother in the movie. “It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture,” said Simone. “It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.” Though Nina Simone’s daughter was not upset at Zoe for playing her mother, she did agree that she was not the best fit aesthetically. She was credited saying “There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses,” she said. “And Nina, in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that.”
The distributor of the project, RLJ Entertainment did release a statement to TIME magazine regarding the backlash of “Nina” stating “Zoe Saldana delivers an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute to Nina Simone. She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent. The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.”
Zoe Saldana finally spoke out a few months later defending herself against the backlash of accepting the role as Nina Simone with Allure magazine. She made sure to address every single critique that was thrown at her. “The fact that we’re talking about her, that Nina Simone is trending? We f—ing won,” she stated. “For so many years, nobody knew who the f— she was. She is essential to our American history. As a woman first, and only then as everything else.” When it came to comments of her doing “black face” she responded, “There’s no one way to be black. I’m black the way I know how to be. You have no idea who I am. I am black. I’m raising black men. Don’t you ever think you can look at me and address me with such disdain.”
Out of all the outrage surrounding the movie, Zoe wanted to make sure she spoke on wearing a prosthetic nose in her depiction of Nina Simone “I never saw her as unattractive,” she said. “Nina looks like half my family! But if you think the [prosthetic] nose I wore was unattractive, then maybe you need to ask yourself, ‘What do you consider beautiful?’ Do you consider a thinner nose beautiful, so the wider you get, the more insulted you become?”
Though this is a common theme through the history of biopics, it is hard to believe that a body of work can still be released without the support of one’s estate and that your legacy can be unfairly depicted. The late great Nina Simone will always be remembered as a strong, transparent force that left her mark on American culture period.