Jeff L. Lieberman is not the director of the Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which was recently nominated for an Academy Award; he’s the director of the 2015 documentary The Amazing Nina Simone. Although Lieberman’s documentary wasn’t met with much fanfare, he’s speaking out against the upcoming biopic starring Zoe Saldana.
Robert Johnson’s defense of his film Nina was not only insulting, it was 100 percent wrong. As someone who has intensely studied Nina Simone for the past five years and recently released a documentary about her life and legacy based on interviews with over 50 of her friends, band members, family, lovers and fellow activists, I am saddened by the ugly and inaccurate portrayal contained in the script and trailer of Nina and by Mr. Johnson’s desperate attempt to defend the project. Let’s be clear: An actor is supposed to disappear in a role so the audience is only focused on the subject. The creators of Nina had the option to say, “Zoe Saldana is the best actor for the role and we believe in colorblind casting, and even though Nina Simone fought her whole life against being ‘too black,’ we still feel Ms. Saldana will embody Nina Simone beyond the physical.” They did not do that. Recognizing and admitting themselves that she did not look the part and was not going to disappear into the role, they dressed her up (poorly) in blackface makeup and prosthetics, ignoring the horrible history of this type of portrayal.
For Mr. Johnson to now claim that this is black people against black people is outrageous, and a desperate distraction. People of all colors are angered because Hollywood has a long history of casting lighter-skinned actors, and even today, with a black president in the Oval Office, the Oscars overlooking black actors and the Black Lives Matter movement at its tipping point, dark-skinned people are still passed over, even for the role of a woman whose story is defined by her proud blackness. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Four Women” are all songs that Nina Simone proudly stood for. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said in his recent essay in The Atlantic, “A young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.”
Not only did Lieberman offer a clear rebuttal to Johnson’s claims, but he also wanted to set the record straight about what he said were inaccuracies in the film:
The 1970s and 1980s were sadder times for Ms. Simone, and the 1990s perhaps the bleakest. I had the opportunity to read the script for Nina four years ago, and it chose to focus on the 1990s. After years without a stable home, Ms. Simone settled in the South of France, and while the warm seaside climate brought calm, it was still no match for the mental illness that consumed much of the second half of Ms. Simone’s life. It seems that the handful of unfortunate events that occurred at that time were too juicy to pass up for Nina’s writer and director, Cynthia Mort. The trailer for Nina reveals Ms. Saldana as Nina brandishing a gun, being strapped down in a hospital and throwing champagne bottles. Where there wasn’t truth, they invented it—turning Ms. Simone’s assistant, Clifton Henderson (played by David Oyelowo), into a love interest, despite the fact that he was an out gay man—and either willfully or ignorantly opted not to show Ms. Simone as she truly was, a woman in her 60s who had gained significant weight. Ms. Saldana in the film appears middle-aged and thin.
And this is the continued fail of the upcoming film. First they couldn’t get the casting correct, and then they tell a completely different story about her life.
As someone who recently watched both Simone documentaries, I can say that both offer an inside look into the singer’s life and are worthy of being watched. But this Nina movie with Saldana? I’m going to pass.