Nina, the Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana, has drummed up plenty of controversy, especially since the first trailer was released two weeks ago. The film has faced harsh criticism—most notably from Simone's estate—for choosing to cast Saldana, a light-skinned actress, in the lead role, with critics such as the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates writing that, "there is something deeply shameful in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic." When the trailer was released, Robert L. Johnson, founder of RLJ Entertainment and BET, issued a statement defending Saldana and the film, and now Jeff Lieberman, who directed a documentary about Simone's life called The Amazing Nina Simone, has issued one of his own staunchly disagreeing with Johnson.
"Robert Johnson's defense of his film Nina was not only insulting, it was 100 percent wrong," Lieberman writes in the Hollywood Reporter. "I am saddened by the ugly and inaccurate portrayal contained in the script and trailer of Nina and by Mr. Johnson's desperate attempt to defend the project. Since Mr. Johnson is a black man who lived through the 1960s, I am surprised he does not know what Nina Simone stood for, both for herself and for the hundreds of thousands of people she inspired along the way."
He goes on to say that Saldana's casting is only half the problem—the real issue, he says, is that the film chooses to focus not on Simone's accomplishments, but on the last tumultuous years of her life:
The 1970s and 1980s were sadder times for Ms. Simone, and the 1990s perhaps the bleakest. I had the opportunity to read the script for Nina four years ago, and it chose to focus on the 1990s. After years without a stable home, Ms. Simone settled in the South of France, and while the warm seaside climate brought calm, it was still no match for the mental illness that consumed much of the second half of Ms. Simone’s life. It seems that the handful of unfortunate events that occurred at that time were too juicy to pass up for Nina’s writer and director, Cynthia Mort. The trailer for Nina reveals Ms. Saldana as Nina brandishing a gun, being strapped down in a hospital and throwing champagne bottles. Where there wasn’t truth, they invented it – turning Ms. Simone’s assistant, Clifton Henderson (played by David Oyelowo), into a love interest, despite the fact that he was an out gay man – and either willfully or ignorantly opted not to show Ms. Simone as she truly was, a woman in her 60s who had gained significant weight. Ms. Saldana in the film appears middle-aged and thin.
Having worked within the Hollywood system for many years, I am aware that scandal and sensation sells. The recent Netflix-funded documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? also opted for a stronger focus on Ms. Simone’s illness and domestic abuse. My recent documentary film, The Amazing Nina Simone, does not shy away from these facts. In a painful moment, Nina's youngest brother and longtime band member, Sam Waymon, shares the heartbreaking moment when he had to institutionalize his sister. But these moments are there to answer long-held questions and are balanced by a much larger focus on the way most people know Ms. Simone: through her music. Ms. Simone had six other decades of phenomenal musical accomplishments and civil rights stands, and she became an international symbol of freedom, pride, and artistry. To overlook this is not only an insult to Ms. Simone’s very rich and complex life, but a blatant white-washing of her achievements as a black woman in 20th century America.
Lieberman is right—the chatter around casting Saldana has drowned out any mention of why the film's director chose to focus on Simone's degeneration rather than her achievements. Critics have yet to weigh in, but the controversy is sure to heat up as the film's April 22 release date draws nearer.