Controversial Casting For A Nina Simone Biopic The producer of an upcoming Nina Simone biopic has cast Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana in the lead role — a move that's proved controversial. Critics say that while Saldana is a talented actress, she's too close to traditional light-skinned Hollywood beauty standards.

Controversial Casting For A Nina Simone Biopic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The blogosphere has been full of distress for the past month, about a movie many had been enthusiastically waiting for. It is the life story of singer and activist Nina Simone. And as NPR's Karen Grigsby-Bates reports, the controversy revolves around the director's choice of rising star Zoe Saldana to play Simone.


KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The rumors that had been around for a couple of years were finally confirmed. At long last, a film was being made about the turbulent life of Nina Simone, otherwise known as the High Priestess of Soul.


BATES: Simone was famous from the 1950s through the '70s for her music and her civil rights activism. And although she died in 2003, her voice remains popular on TV, movie soundtracks and in commercials.


BATES: Originally, hip-hop diva Mary J. Blige was slated to star, but she dropped out last year after filming was delayed. To take her place, director Cynthia Mort chose willowy Zoe Saldana, a gorgeous Afro-Latina who co-starred in "Avatar."


BATES: And that's when the outcry began.

ERICA RENEE: It's like super-disrespectful to cast an ethnically ambiguous person to portray a woman who battled the industry's distaste for her dark skin, and her natural hair and her thick features.

BATES: Erica Renee is one of several angry posters on YouTube who believes the choice of Saldana is jarringly incorrect. She says Saldana's keen features and cafe au lait complexion are very close to Hollywood's typical beauty standard. Lanita Jacobs teaches anthropology at the University of Southern California. She often lectures on how African-Americans are portrayed in film and television.

Jacobs says casting the fair-skinned Saldana, then darkening her with makeup, giving her a prosthetic nose and an Afro wig, is particularly offensive to women who have had to struggle with acceptance because of their own dark complexions.

LANITA JACOBS: We understand that there are these beauty issues, and sometimes what sanctions people's right to speak on these kind of issues is whether or not they have had experiences born of what it means to have kinky hair, or to have wide noses or darker skin. Nina's music taps into a certain kind of awareness born of the way she looks.


BATES: Simone herself, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, noted in interviews that Hollywood penalizes dark-skinned female artists for their hue. Her daughter, actress Simone Kelly, told The New York Times that the singer often said she'd like Whoopi Goldberg to portray her if a movie was ever made. Earlier, social website hosted a petition asking director Cynthia Mort, who did not respond to our interview requests, to rethink the casting of Zoe Saldana in the title role.

Petitioners say this isn't a diss of Saldana and her considerable talent, but a request for someone who more closely mirrors Simone's actual looks. Some of the movie's black critics have already stated they won't go to see it when it's finished, both because of the casting decision and because the Simone family was not consulted. But many swore they'd boycott another movie they believed did a disservice to how black women are perceived...


BATES: And then turned out to see "The Help" in droves. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.