Nina Simone’s long-awaited biopic has had a tough run of it since production was first announced back in 2012. In addition to having its original release date pushed back due to ongoing legal issues and setbacks, star Zoe Saldaña has emerged as a “lightening” rod for Hollywood complexion politics, causing quite the stir amongst social media crusaders and casting doubt on whether she would move forward in the role.
We’re all familiar with the controversy: Nina Simone was known for her dark complexion and broad nose, and was outspoken about her celebration of these features. Why then, would the producers opt for a Bori-Dominicana actress so light in complexion and who — according to some of the more extreme viewpoints — doesn’t even qualify as black? Well, we finally have a trailer for the upcoming Nina that sheds some light on some of these doubts while simultaneously managing to stir more controversy.
To start with, it seems Saldaña has undergone an impressive transformation to incarnate the eccentrically brilliant singer, songwriter, and activist who died in exile back in 2003. Between bad wigs, facial prosthetics, and badly applied dark makeup, the Guardians of the Galaxy star is virtually unrecognizable in the role, and does strike a resemblance to Simone. At the same time, however, it seems many twitter pundits have seen this transformation as tantamount to blackface.
Controversy aside, there is precedent for the darker complexion she dons in films like The Last King of Scotland, which found Forest Whitaker wearing a few layers of Clinique 29 Sienna to fit the part of madman Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. As for the nose, one need look no further than Robert DeNiro’s take on Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull to see that it’s all been done before.
But any way you slice it, Nina is an ambitious biopic about a civil rights icon made almost entirely by members of Hollywood’s white boys club, and their tone deafness has been excruciatingly obvious throughout. Even Saldaña has conceded that she was perhaps not the ideal person for the part, acknowledging the persistence of colorism within Hollywood and American society at large. Yet at the same time, she’s expressed her artistic commitment and willingness to “sacrifice herself for the role.”
It may seem hard to believe given that the Hollywood A-Lister has tended more toward big budget blockbusters with limited acting range, but one glance at this trailer certainly shows a whole new side of Saldaña. Between hysterical outbursts and her maniacal cackle, Saldaña seems like a Method actor taking cues from the likes of Daniel Day Lewis and DeNiro himself. Whether it all holds up over 90-plus minutes has yet to be seen, but Saldaña certainly seems to have taken the responsibility of this role very seriously.
Yet, as the twittersphere keeps lighting up with passionate reactions, it seems the team behind Nina has bigger problems on their hands. Back in May of 2014, just one day before the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Market, director Cynthia Mort filed a lawsuit against the production company, insisting the biopic was taken from her hands and altered beyond recognition, in breach of an otherwise favorable contract. The ongoing lawsuit even further delayed the theatrical release.
After the trailer’s release ignited a Twitter fury, the director spoke out, despite being embroiled in a court case. According to Entertainment Weekly, Mort defended the casting choice: “There are very different visions of what the movie could have been and should have been. Other than that, I think Zoe was amazing, and David [Oyelowo] was amazing, and I’m proud of a lot of the movie.”
We’re betting the spirit of Nina Simone is involved in this whole ordeal somewhere, somehow, and laughing that deep belly laugh from up above.
Nina will be released in theaters and on VOD on April 22, 2016.