Zoe Saldana is set to play Nina Simone in “Nina”, a film about the jazz singer’s life. Filming starts in October 2012. Simone was a dark-skinned black woman, Zoe Saldana is a light-skinned Latina who looks nothing like her, but apparently has the star-power to get the film off the ground.
The film has been in the works since about 2006. Mary J. Blige was set to play the lead. She is a singer and looks much more like Simone, but has less acting talent than Saldana. With Blige as lead they could not raise enough money to start filming.
Because of the way the script is written, this is one of those films that could either win an Oscar or become a mess. It all turns on the acting talent of the lead.
Blige’s acting was probably not up to it. Maybe not Saldana’s either, but her Hollywood name and sex appeal to white men should sell plenty of tickets. Still, it is hard seeing Saldana being as believable as, say, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Angela Bassett as Tina Turner.
Adepero Oduye, who played the lead in “Pariah” (2011), looks way more like Simone and has more acting talent, but has little box-office pull:
The trope here is “But Not Too Black”: leading black characters, particularly females, particularly those with a love story, tend to be played by the light-skinned or mixed-race. The thinking is that they appeal more to white audiences – because they are “not too black” – and even to black audiences – because of colourism. You see it more in film and television aimed at whites than at blacks.
Saldana herself is both black and Latina. As far as I know she has never distanced herself from either. She was born in New Jersey to Dominican parents. She is #45 on Maxim’s Hot 100 for 2012, the highest ranking black actress.
“Nina” is an independent film being put together by the British companies Londinium Films and Ealing Studios. It will probably be shown first in Europe and later in limited release in the States.
Cynthia Mort, a White American television producer, is the writer and director. She has worked on the television shows “Tell Me You Love Me”, “Will & Grace” and “Roseanne”. She was Jodie Foster’s girlfriend.
Mort bought the film rights for Clifton Henderson’s account of Simone’s life. He was her nurse-turned-manager. David Oyelowo of “Red Tails” (2012) will play him.
The parts for Richard Pryor and Lorraine Hansberry have yet to be cast.
The Nina Simone estate, directed by Lisa Simone Kelly, Simone’s daughter, is against the film in its current form: it shows a made-up love affair between Simone and Henderson. Henderson was openly gay. She likes Saldana as an actress but prefers Viola Davis or Kimberly Elise to play her mother. She owns the rights to some of Simone’s songs, but apparently not enough of them to stop the film from going forward: Mort blew her off.