New Nina Simone Biopic Trailer Resuscitates ‘Blackface’ Controversy

March 3, 2016, 4:51 PM UTC
Photograph by John Minihan—Getty Images

It’s been a few years since fans of Nina Simone first erupted in anger over the decision to cast actress Zoe Saldana as the lead in a biopic about the late musician, known as the “High Priestess of Soul.” But, this week’s release of the first trailer for that long-gestating film shows that the passing of time has not quieted the controversy.

The outcry over Saldana’s casting is rooted in the fact that the light-skinned actress (who has Dominican and Puerto Rican ancestry) had to rely on dark makeup and a wide prosthetic nose in order to achieve any semblance of a physical resemblance to Simone. The film’s casting especially struck a nerve because of the role that race played in the life of Simone, an iconic singer and pianist who was also a prominent civil rights activist who embraced her looks despite regular reminders that she did not conform to traditional standards of beauty.

Despite the protests of Simone’s fanbase, the film went into production and eventually premiered at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago, though the debut drew further criticism from some who questioned whether Saldana’s dark makeup in the film amounts to “blackface.”

On Wednesday, fans got the first look at a trailer for the film, titled Nina, which has been delayed by the controversy as well as a lawsuit brought by director Cynthia Mort against U.K. producer Ealing Studios. Let’s just say that the years on the shelf did nothing to cool the simmering anger over Saldana’s casting.

Negative reactions to the trailer included a tweet from the official Twitter (TWTR) page for the estate of Nina Simone (who died in 2003):

Earlier in the week, the same Twitter account responded to a tweet from Saldana, who had posted a quote from Simone, telling the actress to “please take Nina’s name out your mouth. For the rest of your life.”

Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, has also been critical of Saldana’s casting in Nina and of the script for that film in general. Kelly opted to cooperate with Netflix (NFLX) as a producer on the streaming service’s 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which received an Academy Award nomination.

While the controversy over Saldana’s casting has been ongoing for several years, with Nina set to be released in theaters next month, the film is reaching audiences at a time when the debate over diversity in Hollywood and the lack of opportunities for black actors continues to escalate. Chris Rock took on the issue when he opened last weekend’s Academy Awards, following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and award-winning actress Viola Davis has spoken out about the need for more acting roles for older, black actresses.

For what it’s worth, New York magazine’s Vulture blog today submitted a list of seven black actresses who could pull off the role of Simone. Davis, whom Kelly has identified as a more preferable casting choice, made Vulture’s list along with Emmy Award-winning Uzo Aduba and Tony winner Audra McDonald, among others.

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