Studio behind Nina Simone film defends Zoe Saldana amid casting furor

Actress Zoe Saldana came under fire for not being black enough to play African-American soul and jazz musician Nina Simone in an upcoming film.
Actress Zoe Saldana came under fire for not being black enough to play African-American soul and jazz musician Nina Simone in an upcoming film.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The studio behind a film about African-American soul and jazz musician Nina Simone on Thursday (March 3) defended the casting of Zoe Saldana in the lead role after the actress came under fire for not being black enough.

RLJ Entertainment founder and Chairman Robert L. Johnson said Saldana, who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican ethnicity, should not be judged on her colour, but on her performance as Simone in Nina.

"The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of colour, or ethnicity, or physical likeness," Johnson, also the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), said in a statement. "Quality entertainment should be measured by the sheer force of creativity and the commitment that an actor or actress brings to the performance."

Johnson's statement followed the trailer release for the film this week that spurred criticism over Saldana's dark skin make-up and for wearing a prosthetic nose to portray Simone.

The controversy comes amid a larger spotlight on Hollywood's diversity issues. Numerous fans of Simone took to social media to suggest other African-American actresses who could have played the role instead of Saldana.

The film follows the relationship of an older, troubled Simone and her former nurse, Clifton Henderson, played by British black actor David Oyelowo.

Civil rights played a crucial role in Simone's life and lyrics, with the singer often drawing on struggles faced by the African-American community in songs such as Four Women and To Be Young, Gifted And Black. Simone died at age 70 in 2003.

Saldana, best known for sci-fi adventure Avatar, posted a quote by Simone on Twitter this week, saying: "I'll tell you what freedom is to me - No Fear... I mean really, no fear."

The tweet prompted a sharp response from the official Nina Simone Twitter account run by the late singer's estate, which told the actress: "Cool story but please take Nina's name out your mouth. For the rest of your life."

A follow-up tweet from Simone's Twitter account said: "Hopefully people begin to understand this is painful. Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, nauseating, soul-crushing. It shall pass, but for now..."

The film will be released in theatres and on video-on-demand platforms on April 22. A Netflix documentary about Simone's life, What Happened, Miss Simone? was nominated for an Oscar this year but lost out to Amy, the film about the late singer Amy Winehouse who died at age 27 in 2011.