It’s been nearly a month since Tanzina Vega wrote an investigative piece for The New York Times (“Stir Builds Over Actress to Portray Nina Simone”) Saldana about whether Zoe Saldana, as a light-skinned Latina actress, should have been selected to play the role of Nina Simone, the dark-skinned jazz legend, in an upcoming film. Simone, who died in 2003 at the age of 70, recorded more than 40 albums in her distinguished career and played an active role in the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. Saldana’s selection as the lead character in “Nina” has yet to be officially confirmed by the film’s producers but once it was announced by The Hollywood Reporter in mid-August it created quite a stir after many assumed that it already belonged to Mary J. Blige, especially after she told Essence.com in May that she worked with an acting coach for five years in preparation for the gig.
On September 12, Vega’s article was published in The Times and the online version included a slideshow, a short video segment, and also allowed input from readers. During her research she was able to speak with Cynthia Mort, the writer and director of the film, Lisa Simone Kelly, Nina Simone’s only daughter, as well as academics, the NAACP, and opinionated bloggers. Vega’s diligence as a multimedia journalist has become her trademark during her six years with the newspaper. The graduate of Stony Brook University and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism has delved into issues of digital privacy and questioned how much information advertisers and marketers can collect on people in order to show them ads. Her recent collaboration with Bill Carter brought much-needed attention to the stereotypical portrayal of Latino characters on network television.
Since her article on Nina Simone was published it received more than 300 comments online and prompted HuffPost Live to do a 30-minute segment on the topic where they addressed concerns on Hollywood’s habit of “lightwashing” black figures. A few weeks later Nina Simone’s brother, Sam Waymon, expressed his objection with the casting decision stating that Saldana should back out of the movie because she doesn’t resemble his sister. Additionally, he objected to the film after learning that it intends to depict a love story between Simone and her assistant Cliff Henderson which, according to Waymon, was impossible since “Cliff Henderson was gay and it was well known.” Last week Jill Scott shared her thoughts on the subject with HelloBeautiful.com claiming that while Saldana is “an incredible actress” if she were to take on the role mandatory accessories such as “a prosthetic nose would be helpful and definitely some darker makeup.”
I spoke with Vega about the loud debate that her article has created, the legacy of Nina Simone, and how she managed to cover this story as it was still unfolding.
There’s been so much of an emotional response to Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone. Isn’t it true that we still don’t have a confirmation on whether she has actually accepted this role?
That’s correct. They are very close to finalizing that. It has not been confirmed. I spoke to one of the producers on the film and the writer and director Cynthia Mort. The deal had not been signed yet but they were very close to that happening.
Correct and I think that’s where we get into the issue of how accurate does a portrayal of someone need to be. Do we need to follow the story to the letter? Do we allow for this much creative license? I had a friend of mine who said that this is America and anybody who can fund it should be able to do it for their own creative freedom. So there is that argument that she should be allowed to do this and have the creative freedom that she desires. The other argument is that this is the first time that a lot of people will see a film about Nina Simone and if this is the image that they see is that accurate? How much creative license is Cynthia Mort taking in portraying an actual historical figure, a woman is loved by many?
Did Cynthia Mort discuss what she is using to compile her research on this film?
She did not get into that very much. Because the film hasn’t begun shooting I think they were a little reluctant to share too many of those details with me and I understand that. The New York Times is calling you. It’s not a small organization. It’s not a blog calling you to task. It’s a large news organization that’s calling now to find out what’s going on. I don’t know if they expected that or not but I understand their hesitation. They basically wanted to get the message across that we haven’t seen the film yet and they haven’t even started shooting and this is her interpretation of Nina Simone’s life. She was very careful to say that this is not a biopic which created a lot of reaction online of if you’re using her name and her likeness then how do you separate that from it being a biopic?
Will Nina Simone’s music be used in the film?
They are definitely trying to get the rights to her music. The Nina Simone estate has rights to certain songs but not all songs and that’s for a variety of reasons. My understanding is that based on my conversations with Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly, whatever rights they have will not be given for this film. This is one of the things that Simone Kelly wrote on her Facebook page which was that this is an unauthorized version of her mother’s life. She was very quick to say that and I think Cynthia Mort and the producers will have to find a way to get access to other songs that aren’t under the Nina Simone estate.
I do recall a few years ago when it was announced that Mary J. Blige would be playing Nina in a film. There was great support from Nina’s family. Was this the same film project?
This was about five years ago. It is my understanding that it is the same project. I reached out to Mary J. Blige and her representatives and unfortunately was not able to get her on the phone to talk about her side. There was a video interview with Essence where she said that she spent years preparing for this role so it was interesting to suddenly shift from preparing for this role for a long time and now there’s someone else there. I was curious to hear her side of the story but neither Mary nor Zoe Saldana would speak for the piece.
Did Cynthia Mort address this when you spoke with her?
She said that there were scheduling issues and that Mary was very busy. I asked her if there were financial issues with having cast Mary because that was another rumor that was online where people said it was because they couldn’t get financing for the film. Cynthia Mort said that was not the case and that Mary was truly busy and that was why she wasn’t able to participate in the film. The scheduling issues thing is something that a lot of people raised an eyebrow to as why she would spend that many years preparing for a film that she was then not going to be able to do. I don’t know.
I also recall a very controversial quote in 2010 where Mary spoke with Rolling Stone magazine and said that playing Nina would be like playing herself because “Nina Simone was a manic depressive, drug addict, alcoholic, cursing wild maniac that I was, but very talented, so people would get that.” It prompted outrage from Simone Kelly. Do you think that had anything to do with Mary’s departure from the project?
Cynthia and I did not discuss that. I have not read the script. People who have read the script or seen the script are troubled by the fact that it shows Nina Simone not in her best light, at least early on in the film, where she is coming on to someone. They believe it’s the Clifton Henderson character and she is having a breakdown of some sort. Whether she has been drinking or not is unclear but there are some questions about the portrayal of Nina Simone in the script and whether that involves drug use or not I don’t know. I have not read the script but I know there were concerns from people who have read the script about what light will she be portrayed in.
Jimmy Iovine has been like a father figure to Mary J. Blige. He is an executive producer on this film, as well as the chairman of Interscope Records, the label where she is currently signed. It amazes me that something couldn’t be worked out if she was as passionate about this project as she portrayed in the media.
I think a lot of people have that feeling and when you get the scheduling issues response I think that does leave a lot of room for interpretation. A lot of the conversation was also about whether she was a good pick because she, like Diana Ross, were not actresses first and foremost. There were some questions as to whether Mary would have done a good job. I don’t know. Now what’s interesting is that The Times article has gotten over 300 comments so far and there are lots of people suggesting their own casting. You see everyone from Viola Davis to Anika Noni Rose to Indie.Arie as potential actresses. I think it’s important to stress that this isn’t a takedown of Zoe Saldana. This is more on bigger questions about how the decisions in Hollywood are made based on the color of an actor’s skin.
Please elaborate on that because it doesn’t appear that your main objective was to minimize Saldana’s acting skills or her race.
The bigger issue is that Nina Simone’s skin tone and the way that she looked was so connected to her politics and to who she was as a woman that people feel that you cannot separate the two and it has nothing to do with Zoe Saldana being a good actress or a bad actress. It’s just about how accurate is this and is someone going to be able to portray her without understanding what that feels like and without being close enough and accurate enough in the historical portrayal of this woman. Nina has a tremendous amount of fans and love and you’re seeing it in how thoughtful people are being about this conversation.
You spoke with Nina’s daughter for this story. Is there a reason why the family hasn’t released their own Nina Simone film project?
One of the things that we talked about is that there will be a reissuing her mother’s autobiography, “I Put A Spell On You.” She also said she was in talks to do her own film about her mother. There are other projects that her daughter is considering doing and one of they may involve a film.
As long as the Nina movie is labeled “unauthorized” does that mean that potential filmmakers don’t need consent from the family to do this?
That’s correct and I don’t know how you buy the rights to a person’s life. If you look at the Jimmy Hendrix biopic none of his music will be used in the film. It also happened with “Lady Sings the Blues” with Diana Ross. A lot of people didn’t think she could handle it and everyone had their opinion about the acting but as a singer I think she pulled that off. So it does come up a lot with how accurate you have to be if the family isn’t involved or supporting of making a film.
When can we expect a final decision on whether Zoe Saldana is in this film?
I’m hoping for something in the next couple of weeks. It’s scheduled to start shooting in mid-October. We have to wait and see what happens.