The Estate of Nina Simone has blasted the director of the upcoming biopic starring Zoe Saldana.
In a very lengthy open letter posted on the late singer’s official website, Aaron Overfield who manages the site addressed various issues convcerning the unauthorized biopic including the controversial casting of Zoe Saldana, the fact the family is not involved in the project and director Cynthia Mort’s decision to give an inaccurate portrayal of the relationship between Simone and Clifton Henderson an openly gay man who served as the late singer’s nurse.
Below is an edited excerpt of some of the issues Overfield addressed:
The script, written by Latin American writer and first time director Cynthia Mort, is based in a series of lies. That is our starting point. Cynthia calls this her “artistic license.” Under that umbrella what Cynthia is implying is that she can pretty much do whatever the hell she wants and she doesn’t have to listen to anyone. Cynthia has focused her story on Nina’s relationship with her personal assistant, Clifton Henderson, himself a controversial person in Nina’s life. Well before Nina’s death, before talks about a movie, there were issues expressed about Clifton’s intentions regarding Nina and his efforts to seemingly keep her isolated.
After Nina’s death, Clifton sold his story to Cynthia and that became the basis for the movie. So, a (controversial) personal assistant’s relationship with Nina Simone for the very last few years of her life somehow became the focal point of the first ever Nina Simone movie. Moreover, that controversial relationship became fictionalized by Cynthia Mort by her writing the relationship as a romantic one (putting Nina in the role as sexual aggressor and as emotionally needy).
As has been stated before but is worth repeating: Clifton Henderson was a gay man. He was an out gay man…He was neither a heterosexual male nor a man that Nina Simone had any kind of romantic relationship with.”
Cynthia Mort has taken it upon herself to lay claim to the story of Nina Simone without consulting with Nina’s own family. They have not been involved in the process whatsoever. No research, no fact-checking, no basic decency of respect by simply including the family.
He goes on to point out the fact that Mort’s race makes her unqualified to accurately bring Simone’s story to life:
Cynthia Mort is not a black woman. That is a very crucial point here. I am a white man. I know that as a white man I do not have the authority to speak of the black experience because it is not my experience. I cannot and will not “speak” for black people or assume to know the intricacies of racism, as experienced by black people. The privilege and arrogance it takes to do so is disturbing and downright disgusting.
And finally Overfield had this to say about the casting of Zoe Saldana:
Discussions over Zoe being or not being “black enough” are the most heated and the most prevalent….If they were telling the true story of Nina Simone, Zoe would not have ended up in this role.
Can you imagine Zoe all made up like she’s been, playing up on the big screen acting out and singing about Nina’s struggles against racism, colorism, her appearance, and being exploited and marginalized because of those things? Can you imagine how much of a parody that would turn into, as the audience sits back and, knowing what Zoe actually looks like, becomes so confused by what efforts have been taken to make Zoe look like Nina that they are distracted from the actual story? Would it even make any sense? Wouldn’t they wonder why Zoe ever got the role in the first place since that contradicts the entire nature of the movie – the entire nature of Nina’s life – and wouldn’t they sense the hypocrisy? Would it make ANY sense?
No, it wouldn’t. And if that were the story they were telling (again, the actual story of Nina Simone), Zoe Saldana would’ve never been cast in the first place for that very reason. How do we know this? Because to recognize the real Nina Simone and tell her true story means that you are cognizant of what Nina fought her entire life and what embittered her. You would be aware of how she was exploited, marginalized, disregarded, ignored, disrespected … so you wouldn’t continue to do so through the very process of making a film about her. That is, you wouldn’t employ the very same foundations of racism, colorism, exploitation, and disrespect in order to write and cast your movie.
Some keep implying that anyone against Zoe portraying Nina Simone for not being “black” enough are actually being “racist” themselves. (Zoe even agreed with someone who called it “reverse racism.”) No. No no no. NO! That is like someone who is homophobic saying that people are being intolerant by not accepting homophobia. Plus, it entirely misses the point.
The very casting of Zoe itself was based in the still present subtleties of racism, colorism, and beauty standards.
The very casting of Zoe itself was based in the still present subtleties of racism, colorism, and beauty standards. The fact that Zoe ended up being approached for the role (which might make sense considering Cynthia Mort is Latin American), is indicative of the same system that Nina fought her entire life. It shows the entire movie has been misguided from the beginning and Cynthia Mort’s “artistic license” is no more than a spit in the face of Nina’s legacy.
People who say that Zoe’s complexion and features shouldn’t matter are ignoring the fact that they are going to such lengths to darken her skin and change her features, thereby proving those things DO matter. Since Zoe was approached for this film, it has to make you wonder why she was ever approached in the first place. Given the history of Nina Simone: her pride in being a dark skinned woman with her features while lamenting treatment based on skin tone (give Four Women a listen), plus her desire to inspire younger women with similar features – why was Zoe ever approached in the first place?
Like I said, it’s a lengthy read but raises very valid points. This is turning into one big mess which will probably work in the favor of the folks behind this movie because a lot of people are curious to see Zoe in action.
You can read the full letter here.