In 2016, the exciting news that the legacy of singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone would be explored, for the first time, in a full-length feature film was dampened by the announcement that Zoe Saldana had been cast to play the Black culture icon. It took four long years, but Saldana finally realizes how problematic her participation in the project was, and she wishes she could go back and right that wrong.
For context, Simone was a Black music artist who used her platform to assist the civil rights movement. A dark skinned Black woman, the way that she navigated through life was no doubt impacted by the color of her skin; on top of facing racism and sexism, Simone likely dealt with rampant colorism specific to that which darker Black women all over the globe face daily.
Early images from the film showed Saldana in literal blackface, and she had also been fitted with face prosthetics in an attempt to mimic Simone's features. It didn't look good, and the internet had no qualms saying as much. Simone's estate was amongst the loudest of the critics of Nina and Saldana's involvement in the project, making sure Saldana was fully aware of their disdain.
"Hopefully people begin to understand this is painful," the estate tweeted shortly after the movie was first announced. "Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, nauseating, soul-crushing."
At the time, Saldana saw no issue with her part in the movie; as an actress and a Black woman, she felt like she had the right to speak Simone's truth to power. Plus, the star told Allure in 2016, if she hadn't signed on to the project, it likely would never have been made because "female stories aren't relevant enough, especially a Black female story."
Her comments from the interview reflect a certain privilege that many in the Black community will never ever have. Although Saldana is a Black woman, her lighter skin allows her to traverse spaces with far more ease than darker Black women have ever been able to, granting her access to roles that she really shouldn't have been considered for in the first place. And Saldana was fully aware of that privilege, acknowledging that the reason that Nina had been picked up to begin with was mostly because she was attached to the project — not the fact that it was explored the colorful journey of a music icon.
Years later, however, Saldana has taken a new stance. After taking time to listen and learn from the controversy, she now regrets her decision to star in Nina, sharing her remorse over the trajectory of the biopic in a recent livestream.
"I should have never played Nina," Saldana admitted tearfully. "I should have done everything in my power with the leverage that I had 10 years ago — which was a different leverage, but it was leverage nonetheless. I should have tried everything in my power to cast a Black woman to play an exceptionally perfect Black woman."
"I thought back then that I had the permission because I was a Black woman," she continued. "And I am. But it's Nina. And Nina had a life and a journey that should be honored to the specific detail."
At the end of the stream, Saldana herself expressed the need for Simone's life to be shared accurately and appropriately. If there are any filmmakers or actors listening, learn from the disaster that was Nina. There are a number of talented dark-skinned Black actresses in Hollywood who would be perfect for the role — Uzo Aduba, Lorraine Toussaint, and Adepero Oduye are all right there. If you're going to tell this story, you better tell it right. No need for blackface or prosthetics.