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Casting Saldana as Simone inflames ideas of race

Posted at 3:53 AM, Mar 04, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) — If there was any doubt about how Nina Simone's family and fans feel about the upcoming biopic starring Zoe Saldana, recent social media posts make it clear they are not pleased.

A fresh round of criticism for the film erupted after the trailer and poster for "Nina" were unveiled Wednesday.

Saldana posted a quote from the singer and civil rights activist on Twitter, and Simone's estate responded with: "Cool story but please take Nina's name out your mouth. For the rest of your life."

Simone's daughter and others have decried the choice to cast a lighter-skinned actress as the African-American activist since Saldana took the part in 2012. Her skin was apparently darkened for the role, and she wears a prosthetic nose.

At the time, Simone's daughter, Simone Kelly, said: "Appearance-wise this is not the best choice."

"My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark," Kelly told the New York Times in a 2012 interview.

Simone's dark complexion and traditionally African features were central to her identity and concept of black beauty, so casting someone with Saldana's more European appearance is galling, said Miriam J. Petty, an assistant professor in the radio-television-film department at Northwestern University.

"It's disrespectful and demonstrates the depth of the ignorance of the person making the film of the very subject of the film," she said.

The Simone estate tweeted Wednesday: "Hopefully people begin to understand this is painful. Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, nauseating, soul-crushing."

The estate is urging fans to hold listening parties on the film's release date rather than watching "Nina."

Petty, also a devoted Simone fan, also encourages fans to stay away.

"I think it's important not to support this film financially, because the problem with biopics is they become the last word," she said. "Whatever can be done to discredit this film as not the definitive one, by virtue of the philosophical problem, the very blatant philosophical problem of this casting."

The singer's estate cooperated with producers of the Netflix documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?" which was nominated for an Oscar this year.

BET Founder Robert L. Johnson, founder and chairman of the studio releasing "Nina," describes Saldana's performance as "an exceptional and mesmerizing tribute."

"She gave her heart and soul to the role and displayed her extraordinary talent," he said in a statement Thursday. "The most important thing is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness."

Petty asked: "Then why put Zoe Saldana in brown-face makeup?"

The casting choice follows a Hollywood tradition of hiring lighter-skinned actors to play people who would naturally have brown skin. Filmmakers apologized months before "Gods of Egypt" was released for casting Scottish actor Gerard Butler and Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as mythical Egyptian gods.

Representatives for Saldana and the Simone estate did not respond to requests for comment Thursday from The Associated Press.

RLJ Entertainment will release "Nina" in theaters, digital HD and video on demand on April 22.