Dubious Casting

Will ‘Avatar’ Actress Zoe Saldana Play Legendary Singer Nina Simone?

Fans are up in arms over the controversial casting of Latina actress Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. Karu F. Daniels talks to the legendary singer’s daughter about the casting choice.

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Much has been made about who should play legendary singer Nina Simone in the forthcoming biopic, Nina. First it was Queen of Hip Hop Soul Mary J. Blige. Now it’s Avatar and Colombiana actress Zoe Saldana. Both have been considered bad picks to take on the meaty role of the controversial song stylist, who died in 2003 at the age of 70.

Over the years, Hollywood has had what seems like a love-hate affair with biopics. Moviegoers have seen a motley crew of misplaced celebrities simulating the lives and times of beloved or iconic figures. And the scrutiny over some casting choices sometimes overshadows the actual storyline or the subject of said film properties.

Most recently, there’s been scuttlebutt about Lindsay Lohan portraying screen legend Elizabeth Taylor in the upcoming Lifetime movie, Liz & Dick. And of course, Katie Holmes was raked over the coals for starring as Jackie Kennedy Onassis in the 2011 miniseries The Kennedys, which was dropped from one cable channel and later picked up by another.

On celluloid, similar fates have been met—sometimes even worse. Union leaders in South Africa were in an uproar and threatened to boycott Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson playing the country’s former first lady, Winnie Mandela. The film project, which also stars Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, eventually was filmed, but has not seen the light of day because of a reported lack of interest among distributors. And when it was announced that Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg owned the rights and was set to play celebrated salsa queen Celia Cruz, members of the Cuban community were enraged. That project has not materialized.

But sometimes Hollywood does get it right. From Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues and Sissy Spacek portraying Loretta Lynn in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter to Tom Cruise taking on the role of Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic in 1989’s Born On The Fourth of July and Jamie Foxx portraying Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray, the casting choices translated into major Oscar buzz, and critical acclaim.

On the other hand, one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood, Faye Dunaway, took a gamble playing a child-abusing caricature of screen legend Joan Crawford in 1981’s Mommie Dearest. The campy film was a box-office success, yet considered one of the worst of all time. In more recent years, Leonardo DiCaprio has played aviation tycoon Howard Hughes and infamous FBI czar J. Edgar Hoover in two different films, and was greatly overlooked.

“One of the first things that you think about when you think of someone for these projects, is you’re going to try to make it believable in terms of appearance,” Simone Kelly, daughter of the late singer/songwriter, tells The Daily Beast. The married mother of two—an accomplished singer/actress in her own right—is in the midst of a furor over last week’s news that Saldana will play Nina.

The controversy hit a high note, with many crying foul over what some consider a dubious casting choice for the film. There’s even an online petition demanding that Saldana, who has yet to comment, be replaced by an actress “who actually looks like Nina Simone.”

With writing and directing duties going to Will & Grace producer and rumored Jodie Foster gal pal Cynthia Mort, the film, which was first announced in 2005 with Blige attached, is based on the life rights of Cliff Henderson, the openly gay personal assistant to Nina Simone in her final years. Largely regarded as a jazz singer, Simone had a vast repertoire that includes self-composed anthems such as ‘To Be Young, Gifted & Black,’ ‘Mississippi, Goddamn,’ ‘I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,’ and ‘Four Women,’ juxtaposed with her soul-stirring standards such as ‘Feeling Good,’ ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and George Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You, Porgy.’

The film project, scheduled to start filming October 16 in Los Angeles, also features rising star David Oyelowo (Red Tails, The Help), as Henderson. According to published reports, the plot—set in the early 1990s—is essentially a love story about Simone and Henderson, whom the singer met while in a psychiatric ward. Pieces from Simone’s actual history reportedly are woven throughout the film, mostly in flashback form.

Simone Kelly, who says she finally saw the script a year and a half ago after much wrangling, says she became emotionally and physically incapacitated after reading some of it. “After I read the script, my back went out,” she says. “I couldn’t walk, or sit without pain. Never has my back flared up from something emotional. And from what I know of the body, your back is the foundation. I didn’t even finish the script and my back went out. So that was my reaction to the script.”

Now residing in Miami with her family, she remains the sole executor of Nina Simone’s estate, rumored to be worth millions. Ms. Kelly and her father, Andrew C. Stroud, who died last month, were at odds over legal matters for the past few years regarding the estate. She herself is developing a play about her mother, but has experienced delays due to the press of estate affairs. “It’s hard to move forward with something when you’re dealing with people trying to bite you in your heels,” she quips.

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Once The Hollywood Reporter officially reported news of what was thought to be silly casting rumors, Ms. Kelly took to her mother’s Facebook fan page to talk about the Nina project. Her one entry instantaneously received hundreds of comments from readers and fans, mostly denouncing Saldana. Kelly is quick to point out that her disapproval isn’t directed at the starlet. “I love Zoe Saldana, we all love Zoe,” she says. “From Avatar to Colombiana, I’ve seen those movies a few times. But not every project is for everybody. And I know what my mother would think.”

Kelly revealed that while the music legend was shopping a film project based on her own 1992 autobiography, I Put A Spell On You, she hoped to have Whoopi Goldberg portray her. “Need I say more? That just lets you know where she was…. I just don’t get it… I don’t understand Cynthia Mort’s intentions.”

Another Nina Simone insider, David Nathan, a renowned soul music expert, journalist and biographer, isn’t being quite as diplomatic with his displeasure over the casting. “The choices are completely beyond my comprehension,” he says. “Having known Nina from my own teen years to close to her passing in 2003, I can say that aside from her obvious genius as an artist, she was a complex woman whose personality made her often misunderstood, erratic, volatile and subject to the gamut of emotions from rage to tenderness.”

He adds: “That a non-African-American is now being asked to play one of the key figures in the civil rights movement defies belief, given the pool of extraordinary black actresses.”

Nathan, who is white, may have a good, albeit nerve-striking point. But on the other hand, Elizabeth Taylor did play African queen Cleopatra in 1963. It’s all part of Hollywood’s dodgy record casting biopics.

Looking at it from a sheer business standpoint—after all, Hollywood does make movies to make money—Wilson Morales of blackfilm.com, makes a solid argument: “The casting of Zoe in the role of Nina Simone has more to do with sales than with color or acting,” the film expert states. “So many people have spoken and written about how wrong this is and how there are other actors who could play the role such as Viola Davis and (Pariah star) Adepero Oduye, but would they sell tickets?”

Morales adds: “From a marketing standpoint, Saldana’s been in many highly visible and successful box-office films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, and Star Trek, to name a few. While last year’s Colombiana didn’t break box-office records, the film made over $35 million in the United States and Canada, and $24 million in foreign countries, bringing its total to nearly $60 million worldwide. That number is higher than any of Queen Latifah’s or Halle Berry’s star vehicles.”

Casting aside, Kelly is strong in her convictions. Since Nina Simone did compose much of her most pivotal music, the estate maintains control over its usage. Mort, who Kelly says she only communicated with once, may have difficulty getting rights and clearances for the songs.

“As long as this script is based on a lie, anything that comes through me will not be approved,” Kelly promises. “I cannot condone a lie. I don’t live my life as a lie. And the truth is stranger than fiction.”

She continues: “My mother has done some downright shocking things that will make everyone’s eyebrows go up. Why can’t we talk about the truth? Why can’t we base your movie on the truth?”