Next Friday, April 22, Nina will be released in movie theaters nationwide. The film centers on the relationship between legendary musician and political activist Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana) and her manager, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo). Simone gained renown for her distinctive voice and unapologetic attitude. With her celebrated career, she solidified her place as an icon of jazz, gospel, and pop music. She has a huge fan base even to this day. So why is everyone so pissed off about the movie about her life?
BuzzFeed interviewed the director of the film, Cynthia Mort, along with a handful of other key players, to unpack the controversy surrounding the film. It starts with the casting process and ends with Simone's family openly insulting and declining to endorse the film. Here are 10 reasons that the spotlight went dark on Nina.
1. The casting choice for the role of Nina Simone faced serious backlash.
Zoe Saldana was cast to play Simone back in 2012. Saldana is light-skinned and of Dominican Republican and Puerto Rican descent. In previous interviews, Simone's daughter expressed a desire for the role to be recast with someone who looks more similar to her mother. 2. The story focuses mainly on Henderson.
The movie is portrayed through Henderson's perspective. Simone met the man who would be by her side for most of her life while she was supposedly spending time in a psychiatric facility.
3. The love story being portrayed never happened.
Simone's daughter has said that Henderson was gay and that he and her mother never had a sexual relationship. She wrote on Facebook that the love story between her mother and Henderson is entirely fabricated. “It is a love story of sorts, but it’s not a romantic, sexual story," she said. "Not at all.” 4. The filmmakers knew Henderson was gay, but still stuck with that plot line, anyway.
“We understand that Clifton Henderson was gay,” Barnaby Thompson, one of the producers told BuzzFeed. She elaborated, "It’s dealing with complicated human emotions, and dealing with a woman trying to make sense of her life. Hopefully, if the film works, the audience will come to understand Nina through Clifton’s eyes.” 5. Mary J. Blige was initially meant to play Simone.
But that idea was yanked after the singer said this to Rolling Stone: "[Playing] a character like Nina Simone is playing myself, because Nina Simone was a manic depressive, drug addict, alcoholic, cursing wild maniac that I was, but very talented, so people would get that.” 6. The man behind NinaSimone.com thinks Simone would have hated the script.
In an open letter to "anyone who cares about Nina Simone," a man BuzzFeed identifies as Aaron Overfield writes, "The most frustrating people are the ones who imply everyone should just shut up and 'wait and see' or 'leave them alone.' That attitude is not in the spirit of Nina Simone whatsoever. Quite the opposite. Nina was vocal, defiant, a warrior, an activist. She would not have simply shut up and sat down. She would’ve shown up at the studio with a shotgun to speak with Ms. Mort and slapped the makeup off Zoe." 7. The film is a "low-budget indie movie."
Thompson said the budget was about $7 million. That's low. Compare that to the James Brown biopic from 2014, which started out at $70 million but was later greenlit for $30 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. 8. The elaborate makeup and prosthetics piece used on Saldana have also been a focus of criticism.
Saldana wears a prosthetic nose, a wig, and makeup to darken her skin. Mort told BuzzFeed, "I understand the issue of race. And color is a sensitive issue. But at the same time, it is a movie. And it is an actor. And everyone is doing their best to find the truth in that.” 9. There was drama amongst the film's producers and director.
Mort allegedly got into multiple fights and arguments with other unnamed members of the edit team. She said, "They started messing with the film, and the portrayal of Nina.” 10. The project was totally dropped in 2013.
Mort filed a lawsuit against the studio that produced the film after the studio showed it at Cannes before she felt it was ready. Eventually the film was bought by RLJ, which recut the film once more to its final version, out April 22.
For more behind-the-drama details about the movie, head over to BuzzFeed.