Nina Simone film’s ‘Blackface’ criticism branded as a relic of slavery by distributor

The film's distributor has hit out at criticism against Zoe Saldana's portrayal

The distributor of forthcoming Nina Simone biopic Nina has hit out at critics who have been slamming the film’s casting of Zoe Saldana for the role of the late jazz singer, it was reported today (March 18).

Zoe Saldana (Guardians of The Galaxy) has been widely criticised by fans and Simone’s estate for ‘blacking up’ and using prosthetics to make her look more similar to Simone’s image.

Now the film’s distributor, Black Entertainment Television founder and ‘the first African American billionaire’, Robert L Johnson, has branded the furore a trap set by slave owners centuries ago, claiming that it harkens back to when African Americans were treated as slaves.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Johnson said: “It’s unfortunate that African Americans are talking about this in a way that hearkens back to how we were treated when we were slaves,” said Johnson. “The slave masters separated light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks, and some of that social DNA still exists today among many black people.”

He then compared criticism of Saldana’s casting to famous early 20th-century practice named the “brown paper bag” test, which saw African Americans turned away from black social institutions such as churches and even nightclubs if their skin was darker than the bag’s colour.

“That’s where some of this comes from, when you hear people saying that a light-skinned woman can’t play a dark-skinned woman when they’re both clearly of African descent,” he goes on. “To say that if I’m gonna cast a movie, I’ve gotta hold a brown paper bag up to the actresses and say, ‘Oh sorry, you can’t play her.’ Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?

“As an African American, I will gladly engage anyone on this question of should we be talking about how light or how dark you should be to play a role,” he continued. “Many people who are talking about it don’t even realise what they’re getting into. Imagine if I were to do a biopic about Lena Horne, who’s obviously light-skinned, or Dorothy Dandridge. Would it be fair if I put up a sign that said, ‘No black women apply’? That would be ridiculous. Black Americans should know better than to have this discussion over a creative project. We’re not talking about white against black. We’re talking about black against black.”

Read more: Nina Simone’s estate tells star Zoe Saldana: ‘take Nina’s name out your mouth’

Nina Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly has defended Zoe Saldana’s casting in the biopic about her mother and slammed the overall production as being based on lies.

Saldana received a lot of backlash for her casting with many saying she didn’t have the right appearance to portray Nina, as she wears a prosthetic nose and darkened her skin with make up.

This lead to a harsh tweet from the official Twitter account for Nina Simone’s music saying “please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”

Now Simone Kelly has spoken to Time
about the long-delayed film (Nina): “It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture.”

“It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.

“There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses. And Nina, in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that.”

However, Simon Kelly’s main issue with the film is around the plot, which she explains is based on a fictional relationship between her mother and her manager, Clifton Henderson – who she claims was actually gay.

She said: “The movie is about a relationship between my mother and Clifton which never took place. They never had an amorous relationship.

“The project has been tainted from the very beginning. Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life and everyone now knows that. This is not how you want your loved ones remembered.”